By Hannah DiPilato
“The Magic Kingdom is now open!” a loud voice blares over the intercom at the entrance of the most famous park at Disney World. Hoards of people rush towards the small gates to journey into the land of magic. Upon entering, the magic hits like a wall with Mickey Mouse balloons and a Main Street lined with buildings that look like they were pulled from a storybook. This all leads up to the glistening masterpiece that is Cinderella’s castle.
But how magical is this experience when you have to do it daily as a burnt-out college student working to make ends meet? For thousands of college students, this is their daily life, but the magic gets dull with each screaming child and cranky parent they encounter. Does the magic truly vanish while working for the Disney College Program, or is all the hassle worth the enchantment that encompasses Disney?
What it Takes to Work for the Mouse
Although it may seem like no one would be begging to work in a theme park, the Disney College Program gets thousands of applicants every year and only ends up accepting less than 20% of those students. The Disney College Program offers programs at both Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland Resort in California. There are five basic qualifications students must meet before they should begin to apply.
According to the Disney Program website, students that hope to apply to the program must be “enrolled and taking classes at an accredited program or institution” at the time they hope to apply. Students must have already completed at least one semester of classes or have graduated within 12 months. The program is specifically designed for undergraduate students, but graduate students are able to apply. Some individual universities have special requirements for students to meet such as a specific GPA, so students should meet with an advisor at their school before applying.
The program also requires all applicants to be at least 18 years old by the time the program starts as well as possess an unrestricted work authorization. Finally, students that have done the program before must wait at least four months from their departure date to return to the program again.
However, the program requirements go deeper than this. Since the program is so competitive applicants need to do their best to stand out. The first step of the application process is a general questionnaire that’s similar to many basic job applications. After passing this step, applicants move on to a more in-depth web interview. Finally, a phone interview makes the final decision if someone is selected for the program.
The Captivating Cast Member Positions
There’s a variety of positions available for students that register for the program. The jobs range from working in the parks to working in the hotels and are assigned by random or based on applicants’ prior experience. These positions are no walk through wonderland, they’re full-time positions and students need to be available to work days, nights, weekends and holidays. The wage depends on the position, but most of the employees only make around $9 an hour or a similar amount close to minimum wage. The paychecks certainly aren’t fit for royalty.
One past cast member who was a part of the Disney college program, Rebecca Condon, worked Merchandise at the Emporium on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom. This retail experience allowed her to become a manager at Lilly Pulitzer at the young age of 22. Northeastern alumni, Kayla DiPilato also participated in the program as a seater at Be Our Guest, a themed restaurant in the Magic Kingdom. She believes she received this position because of her prior experience as a hostess at Top of the Hub in Boston.
As both of these jobs seem to capture the whimsical essence of Disney, many positions in the program are not as sought over. Some roles such as custodial or food prep, are minimum wage jobs that can be found at most basic establishments all around the country. However, what would be a part-time job in a fast-food restaurant or a business turns into hours on hours in an amusement park to make ends meet. Depending on which job an applicant is selected for could determine whether they love or hate the program. Although, one person’s job nightmare could be a dream come true for somebody else.
Not a Castle Nor a Carriage
The housing and transportation for the program has not received stellar reviews from past cast members. Members of the Disney College Program are housed in apartments and rent is taken weekly from their paychecks. Rent can cost anywhere from $114 to $205 a week depending on what housing a person is placed in. Many times cast members have to share a room as well as sharing the apartment with a few other workers. The rules of housing are apparently incredibly strict, with restrictions against alcohol as well as overnight guests of the opposite gender.
“My least favorite part of the job was the apartments they housed us in,” said Rebecca Condon. “My apartment was the oldest Disney property and had tons of issues. My toilet overflowed 7 times during the program because of bad pipes in the wall to the point where it flooded our whole apartment with about 2 inches of water.” The rent might be cheap, but in the end you get what you pay for.
If students were unable to bring their own car, they had to rely on the transportation provided by Disney. The college program in Orlando provides a shuttle service to help transport cast members, but the Anaheim program only provides cast members with a free city bus pass. Although the shuttle sounds like a convenient option, it was much less practical than having a car on the property.
“It is unbelievable how they are able to transport thousands of us,” expressed Condon. “Although, with that being said, it was really hard because I would have to leave two hours before my shift to make sure I got there in time and I often wasn’t home until two to three hours after my shift.” After an incredibly long day of working in a busy park, a two-hour commute is much longer than anyone would want to endure.
The unreliable shuttle was one reason DiPilato decided to drive her car all the way from Massachusetts to use during her time in the program. “I knew how disastrous it would be to take the shuttle for commuting,” she said. “I also wanted to have the freedom to explore Orlando.”
Experience the Magic but Fight the Villains
Disney has its perks as well as its downsides just as any normal day job does. DiPilato said her favorite part of the job was making magic for guests, especially for kids that were part of the Make A Wish program. However, she also recalled that families would often get hot and tired after a long day in the park and take out their frustrations on her.
There were also a lot of strict rules such as never being allowed to point with one finger, never calling guests “people” instead of guests, not being able to have piercings besides one on your earlobes and not being able to wear too much makeup.
“Once I got yelled at because a child threw his shoe into our moat. How was that my fault?” recalled DiPilato. “Although, I did get to meet Josh Gad in promotion of the Beauty and The Beast live-action movie that was set to come out at the time, so that was a super cool experience.”
Condon recalled one occurrence where the cast members got to experience an exclusive party for the cast members. “Disney opened up one of their water parks for cast members after hours,” she recalled. “They hired a DJ and catered with some of the best Disney Treats, especially the Mickey Bars!”
Every day working at Disney for the Disney College Program is a unique experience. DiPilato mentioned that guests would often sprinkle ashes of relatives within the rides and cast members would have to clean them up. “Yeah, that happened a lot, mostly in the Haunted Mansion,” she said nonchalantly. She also touched on the fact that kids would often get separated from their families, throw up randomly and scream… a lot. “Giving kids a magical experience is amazing, but it comes with so many more problems than would come with working strictly with adults,” she said.
Is the Work Worth the Pixie Dust?
It takes a special and dedicated person to participate in the Disney College Program. Days are full of long hours of work and lots of cranky families. However, the perks and experience a cast member receives from the job will last a lifetime.
“I absolutely loved the program and feel like I grew so much from it,” concluded Condon. “The skills I learned from working for this Fortune 500 company is something I carry around with me every day.”
If you could walk through the streets of Magic Kingdom daily without it ever getting old, or eat a Mickey Ice Cream bar every day without ever getting sick of them, you could have what it takes to become a cast member. To many, it is the job of a lifetime to be able to play an important role in millions of children’s most magical memories and the free park entry doesn’t hurt either.
If you can get over the job’s flaws, you could have Mickey Mouse as your coworker. And hey, don’t all jobs have their downsides?