Billed as a chance to "become part of the magic that's known worldwide," the Disney College Program sounds like a dream come true for students and Disney fans everywhere. Launched nearly 40 years ago, the program is designed to give college students an opportunity to work in the Disney parks and resorts while earning college credits for a semester or two.
But what's it really like to spend half the year working at the happiest place on earth? POPSUGAR caught up with Disney College Program veteran Brittany Roe to find out. Brittany took part in the program in 2012, working as an attractions hostess at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. You know the smiling, waving cast members who send you off on the roller coaster? That was Brittany, and she loved her experience so much that she headed back to Disney for two more professional internships — one in Guest Relations and a second with Walt Disney Imagineering Communications.
Having seen the magic of Disney from virtually every angle, we asked Brittany what her top tricks, tips, and recommendations might be for anyone hoping to join the program. From how to ace your interview to the bare necessities (pun intended) to pack in your suitcase, here's everything you need to know about the Disney College Program (DCP, for short).
- Consistency and passion are key in your interview. There are a few stages to the application process, and it's fiercely competitive (they reportedly have more than 50,000 applicants every year and only accept about 12,000). "Be honest, but know that similar questions will be asked repeatedly, just in different ways," Brittany told POPSUGAR. "They're expecting you to know who you are as a professional, and inconsistency will show. If you're interested in hospitality, I think it's very important to mention that. You can participate in the College Program regardless of your field of study, but because Disney is a themed entertainment business, I think you should have an interest and mention it!" She added that having "oodles of passion" for the Disney experience is also a huge plus, as that will surely come through in your interactions with guests.
- A smile goes a long way. Speaking of interactions, think back to any conversation you've had with a Disney employee — have they ever not been happy? As Brittany explained, Disney is a company built on friendliness and smiles, so it helps to show both throughout the interview and program. "Smile when you talk, even during a phone interview," she suggested. "It calms your nerves, and even though the interviewer can't actually see you, I think you can 'hear' a smile in someone's words."
The hours are long. It's important to know that the program's not all magic all the time. Long hours in the hot sun are part of the deal (think anywhere from six- to 13-hour shifts), and though you'll definitely bond with other participants and cast members, it's easy to get rundown and homesick — especially in your first few weeks. "I think the toughest part was getting there and not realising exactly how alone I'd feel at first," Brittany said. "You make friends quickly, but during the first week to three weeks, you're settling in and every day is different and you're getting a lot thrown at you. You have to learn on the job and in training, and you're in a very stimulating environment. Seeing families get off the attraction together, laughing and hollering, made me homesick sometimes, as I often went to the parks with my family before being a cast member. You just have to remember that you have a role to play, and the benefits outweigh the negatives."
- Expect the unexpected from your schedule. In the theme of crazy hours, remember that your schedule and days off will change week by week, too — sometimes involving early mornings or late nights. "Since I was the last College Program participant to arrive to my attraction that cycle, I was usually the closer, which meant I stayed 45 minutes after the park closed to do the closing checklist," Brittany revealed. "Sometimes this would mean getting out after midnight. I would usually work in the early-late afternoon the next day. My days off changed as well, which could make arranging plans with friends who had different days off a bit difficult." That said, you can usually exchange shifts or give them away to another person in the program, as "someone [is] always looking for extra hours or pay."
- The housing is cheap, but it's probably stricter than your college dorm. While in the program, participants live in housing complexes near the Disneyland Resort (in Anaheim) or the Walt Disney World Resort (in Orlando), unless they're able to crash with friends or family nearby. Most accommodations include fully furnished apartments — kitchen, WiFi, the works — with two to three "DCP"ers per room. Rent costs anywhere from $114 to $205 per week, usually deducted from members' weekly paychecks. There is some fine print, though. While the amenities are likely similar to your college's or university's, the rules may be stricter and more heavily enforced, so it's best to leave the booze (and overnight guests) behind. "You have to 'check in' guests who don't live in your complex, and those of the opposite sex aren't supposed to stay the night," Brittany explained. "No underage drinking or drugs is enforced, and if you're caught, you're immediately termed (fired). The apartments are fully furnished and in a nice area, near lots of amenities like restaurants and the outlet malls, but you definitely have to go into it knowing you're not going to have as much freedom as you would in a college dorm."
- The bus isn't the best. The DCP provides a shuttle service for cast members in Orlando, FL, but Brittany says it's not the most reliable. Further, the program in Anaheim, CA, doesn't provide a shuttle at all, just a free bus pass for the city. You can work around it, as many cast members do, but both towns are far easier to navigate and explore when you've got a car. Having your own ride will also help you break out of the Disney "bubble," as Brittany calls it. It'll allow you to explore the greater area and nearby theme parks, like Universal Studios (it has The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, if you need a dash of a different kind of magic).
- The paycheck's not quite fit for a princess. In terms of compensation, the DCP's not going to leave you with a vault full of cash, à la Scrooge McDuck. When Brittany was in the program, participants were paid minimum wage, and a few Glassdoor searches suggest that today's DCP interns make around $23,000 annually — or about $442 a week, before taxes and housing. You'll also have to pay for your flight, program fees (which come to $390 and are due when you join), and living expenses like groceries. If you choose to take classes and earn college credit through the program (more on that below), you may also have to pay fees to your college or university. Many participants end up breaking even, so be sure to manage expectations there.
But the perks are awesome. Despite the less-than-stellar salary, the DCP comes with other perks and benefits — and plenty of them. "I definitely think that to do the program, you have to count the experience as something you're 'earning' as well," Brittany told POPSUGAR. "Working for a Fortune 500 company is an incredible experience, no matter how you slice it." You'll also get free entry to the parks (which can otherwise cost upward of $125 for the day), plus discounts on food and merchandise. From Brittany's standpoint, it all balances out — "I think for the experience as an early college student, it's worthwhile."
- There are classes and seminars available. Though classes aren't mandatory for DCP students, it's another potential perk of the program. The courses available cover everything from Animal Sciences and Leadership 101 to Costuming and "The Epcot Story," taught in a classroom setting or out in the park. If you need to take online courses from your university, you can carve out the time in your schedule to do that.
- It's a crash course in confidence. Whether you choose to attend courses or not, you'll likely learn a lot from the Disney College Program — about yourself, the hospitality industry, and how to work with others. You'll also learn the ins and outs of the parks, like the best times of day to ride Splash Mountain or which countries have the greatest snacks at Epcot. For Brittany, the DCP was a lesson in confidence and connection-building (which, as mentioned, helped her land two more professional internships at the company). "Networking is powerful in Disney!" she said. "You meet people who know people from everywhere, and it helped me tremendously to get a foot in the door. I was also a shy introvert prior to the program, but working at a loud attraction with strangers from all over the world helped me get over that and get a special kind of confidence I wouldn't have otherwise." All it took were faith, trust, and a little pixie dust.