Ask an Expert About: Walt Disney World College Program

| TBS Staff

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Meet Disney University Graduate, Jennifer Tatum

Jennifer Tatum is a substitute teacher in Muskegon County, Michigan and a Disney Ductorate Degree-holder

Ever wondered what it’s like to work for Disney? Curious how you can get started on a Disney career? The Walt Disney World College Program is a great starting point. The Disney College Program is national paid-internship program owned and operated by the Walt Disney Company. College-age students can apply to take part in this highly-competitive, rigorous, but ultimately rewarding program. And if you do earn your Ductorate Degree — the highest credential bestowed upon Disney University graduates — you could gain a distinct advantage in becoming a part of the Disney community. Moreover, your Disney education could prove tremendously valuable wherever your career takes you.

This was the experience of our resident expert, Disney College Program graduate, Jennifer Tatum. Jennifer is a professional substitute teacher, a mother of three, a wife of one, and a storyteller who lives near the shores of Lake Michigan. Jennifer earned her Ductorate degree in the summer of 1993. Jennifer tells us exactly what it was like to learn, live, and work in the immersive Disney College Program.

Reach out to Jennifer on Twitter with questions or feedback.

To learn more about the Disney College Program, Disney University, or the Disney International Exchange Program, check out our look at The Disney College Program.

Read on to learn what life is really like for a Disney College student.

Answers to Our Disney College Program Questions

What educational program did you complete and how long were you there?

Jennifer: I completed my Ductorate Degree through the Disney College Program, and I served a summer-long internship during the summer of 1993. Since that time, I’m sure the program names and curriculum have undergone a lot of change. I was on the hospitality management path — but I’m not sure what it was actually called back then. I was assigned to the Disney-MGM Studios as a Cast Member at The Great Movie Ride (which was removed from the Park in late 2017).

What is your current professional title?

Jennifer: I am currently a substitute teacher for school districts in Muskegon County, Michigan. Before that, my most recent full-time job was providing I.T. support for International Truck & Engine — like being a help desk technician for a nationwide network of truck dealerships.

What brought you to the Disney program?

Jennifer: I was studying film, video, and animation at Grand Valley State University and graduation requirements included serving a full-time internship. My animation professor knew one of the Disney animators and recommended I apply for the program. In the early 90s, Disney was right at the forefront of innovating with CGI in animation — having just released Beauty and the Beast — and being as close to that epicenter as possible seemed like a great idea. But, regardless, I think whatever your degree and career focus is, you would benefit from the Disney College program.

What distinguishes the Disney educational experience from your prior educational experiences?

Jennifer: I didn’t have to pass any interviews to get into a university. But the interview process for the Disney College program was extensive and nerve-wracking. It was much more intensive and surprising than any college application process I’d ever experienced.

I didn’t live on campus when I was attending GVSU, so dorm-life at the Disney apartments was an immediate difference for me. Previously, as a student at GVSU, when I was done with classes for the day, I went home. However, at Disney, the people you study and work with are the people you live with. It was very immersive.

The biggest difference between Disney dorms and university dorms is that work managers have the same goals as the school and educators do. Our education and our classes came first. Many of my friends in college struggled with a work/school balance because their employers weren’t concerned about their education priorities or schedules. But that was never an issue in the Disney college program because everybody agreed we were there to learn, and work was always in support of that.

Unlike my college experience, students were expected to be professional when attending class. We couldn’t wear whatever we wanted; we were expected to wear “business-professional” in class. It didn’t matter if it was 100° outside — I was not allowed to wear shorts to class!

In the Disney College program, the highest degree is the Ductorate. If you miss even a single class, you can only earn a Mouster’s Degree, at best. This is still an excellent degree to have on a resume, but you definitely want to follow the rules and earn the highest degree possible!

What did you gain educationally, professionally, or personally from the experience?

Jennifer: Educationally, I satisfied my internship requirements, of course. But beyond that I was fortunate enough to be able to connect with a Disney animator, who gave me specific advice and guidance about the degree program I was in at home. Had I been assigned to intern at the animation studios, perhaps the program might have advanced my educational goals even more. While you can request placement, in the end, it’s not up to the student.

The Disney classes didn’t correspond directly to my college degree program, but they were a huge benefit to me professionally. The Disney classes really taught customer service, gave me a strong work ethic, and helped me learn to put the job ahead of my personal needs and feelings while at work. At Disney, you cannot bring your personal problems to the workplace, and I definitely learned that lesson well. A traditional workplace might say, “We don’t care how bad your day is, just get here” — at Disney, if you really could not be cheerful for customers, you should probably call in sick. If you can’t bring your smile, stay home.

On a personal level, learning how to be cheerful and kind while serving others despite how my day, my week, or my month was going, was more valuable than I can express. I learned that not bringing my drama or negativity to work is one of the kindest and best gifts I can give to coworkers, clients, and customers. And now, today, as a public school teacher — I am a more effective educator and mentor because of those lessons. No student at any age ever needs to know if I’m experiencing personal drama — it would only get in the way of their learning.

For example, when my doctor told me he discovered a small tumor on my pituitary gland, the only people at work who knew about my condition were the people I specifically told. The people who needed to worry about me, could. But the people who needed a kind, professional, and cheerful helper were always greeted with the Disney smile that made their day better.

How would you describe the daily Disney education experience to somebody who is interested?

Jennifer: I tended to work late afternoon and evenings, so I would typically wake up in the morning, hang out by one of the apartment pools or attend class (if it was a class day). Then, when it was time for work, I would hop on the company-provided trolley and go to cast-member entrance for the park I was assigned to. There, an always-smiling security guard would check my ID, and from there I’d immediately go to the costuming department where I would be given what to wear for my specific job at the location I was assigned to on that day.

After changing into our costumes, Cast Members would take a very specific, behind-the-scenes path to our assigned attraction. The public would never see us going to or from work, only being at work. (At the Disney-MGM Studios, the rules were slightly relaxed because it is not uncommon to see very strange characters mixing on a real Hollywood set. So we had a little more freedom to travel.) But in the Magic Kingdom, Cast Members would enter or exit at very precise locations, so you’d never see a Tomorrowland Cast Member wandering through, say,Frontierland.)

We’d then spend the next eight hours interacting with people from literally all over the world. Some of the guests were having a great day, but some were not. But we always smiled, were always helpful, and if we didn’t speak the same language, we’d find a way to communicate — or find someone who could. Our job was to make every guest’s trip magical, no matter the barriers.

Sometimes I was fortunate enough to work parade crowd control, setting up the ropes and helping people while waiting for parades or fireworks to begin. I always enjoyed that the most because fireworks were my favorite, and Disney-MGM Studios always had the best fireworks in the park. Plus, I loved seeing people’s surprised reactions. I loved seeing their day end with so much magic.

After the park closed, we’d return to costuming and we’d surrender our threads to the costuming Cast Member for cleaning. Leaving, we’d say goodbye to the still smiling security guard, take the Trolley home, and we were free to crash or enjoy whatever nightlife or entertainment we wanted.

By the way, I loved that I was not responsible for keeping track of or cleaning any part of my costume. Every Cast Member at Disney wears a costume, regardless of whether they served the public or not. For example, even the workers in the staff-only commissary wore costumes. Outside of Disney, we’d call that a uniform. But Disney is very serious about treating all of life as a stage, and every employee has a part to play, and a costume to wear. I would check my costume out, wear it, and turn it in. And the next day, it was always clean and pressed. And it was the same for every Disney Cast Member.

What warnings would you offer to prospective Disney students?

Jennifer: If you are considering applying for the program, hold off on that publicly visible tattoo, that super-hip haircut, or a shaved head. And if you’re planning to add to your face-piercing collection, make sure it’s healed-up by the time you arrive for the program — because you’ll be asked to remove your hardware.

When people talk about “The Disney Look,” they aren’t kidding. I have a friend who was almost “invited to leave the program” because when she put on her costume, part of a tattoo on her ankle was still visible. Fortunately, she was able to transfer to a new assignment where a different costume covered the tattoo entirely.

Like the difference between uniforms and costumes, there’s a reason Disney doesn’t call the people that work there employees — they call them Cast Members. Disney puts on a show, and everybody working there plays their part. If you were a Cast Member on a Broadway production, you would be expected to “look the part” while on stage. And this is also true at Disney, even if your “stage” is simply handing out name tags. Disney is an amazingly diverse place, but in order to maintain that magical feeling, like you walked into another world, the Cast Members cannot look like the employees you can find just anywhere outside of Disney.

It’s common for college students to want to stand out, to be unique, and to draw attention with their fashion and style. But standing out would shatter the Disney illusion — and it’s always about the magic and the show at Disney, it’s not about the individual Cast Member — unless you’re Mickey Mouse.

If standing out in the crowd is vitally important to you, the Disney College experience should be avoided.

Disney is known for its unique workforce culture. What can you tell us about the cultural experience?

Jennifer: On our days off, we were allowed to go to the Park in our civilian clothes. In theory, nobody would know I was a Disney employee, but the work culture was so enjoyable and became such a part of me that even on my days off, if I saw a group of people trying to take a picture, or trying to puzzle out a map, I wouldn’t hesitate to offer help.

In my experience, the positive attitude required by Disney World actually continued backstage — when nobody was watching. It was, by far, the most positive work environment I’ve ever enjoyed, with the least amount of interpersonal drama, gossip, or backbiting when compared to any other place I’ve ever worked.

And the training sticks.

Twenty-five years after leaving the college program, I revisited Disney World with my family and I still found myself interrupting my personal vacation to offer directions to a lost soul, or to lend a hand taking pictures so that some strangers could have their entire group in the shot, recording their magical trip.

Here’s a story. A new thing at Disney involves trading pins and people are always searching for and exchanging pins to complete sets or to acquire rare or popular pins. While on my family vacation at Disney World, a little girl admired one of my Figment pins — a favorite pin I’d worked hard to find. The little girl had been desperately looking for that pin. I offered to trade it to her, but she didn’t have her pins with her, and that made her sad.

Without a second thought, I simply took off my pin and gave it to her. It didn’t matter at all that it was my favorite pin — this was simply an opportunity to make the Disney magic real for an eight-year-old girl and seeing that joy on her face satisfied the old Disney Cast Member inside me. As Cast Members say: “Once a Disney employee, always a Disney employee.”

Soon after the girl left with her prize, a Cast Member who witnessed this interaction struck up a conversation with me. Finding out that I, too, had been looking for a specific and rare pin. Surprisingly, he had that very pin — but at home. Doubling down on the Disney magic he offered to bring it to the Park for me the next day. But now it was my turn to be sad; it was our family’s last night in Florida, and we were leaving in the morning.

So, he offered to mail it to me.

To my delight, but not my surprise, shortly after arriving at home, that rare and special pin arrived in the mail.

What personality traits would most likely benefit an individual who aspires to fit into the Disney culture and community?

Jennifer: You should enjoy helping other people be happy, but you need to be able to roll with it if a complete stranger yells at you. It’s rare, but occasionally you do find a guest not feeling the magic. Being able to speak a foreign language is helpful because you could be certified to be an official translator. Having a good memory is helpful because you have to be able to memorize a lot of scripts and many rules. You should be able to appreciate and enjoy cultural, ethnic, religious, and lifestyle diversity — even if you don’t understand all the diversity you’ll encounter.

You need to have high energy, being able to walk out of the park with the same high energy you walked in with. A sense of humor will go a long way, too, but probably true of any job. You need to be able to take and respond positively to constructive criticism from management in the event you do something that doesn’t meet Disney standards; arguing is not an option. Depending on your job, you should be willing to serve others with or without thanks, you should be able to quickly assess a situation and determine what kind of help a guest needs and how much, and you should be able to keep your emotional baggage out of the workplace.

What are some of the unforeseen challenges of participating in the Disney educational program?

Jennifer: Some students weren’t prepared to be away from family and their college friends for so long, but that would be true for any away-from-home college experience. Also, like being assigned to a dorm room, if you get assigned to an apartment with classmates you don’t get along with very well, this could be very challenging.

For me, there were no serious challenges to being part of the Disney educational program — but it’s not at all like a traditional campus program where one learns a cognitive skill like accounting, or chemistry, or math. For me, the courses were about learning the Disney way of doing things so that, when I was out with the public as a Cast Member, I’d be able to learn as much as I could about the job, on the job.

What are some of the unforeseen challenges to being part of the Disney workforce?

Jennifer: Sometimes the language barriers between Cast Members and guests can be overwhelming at the beginning. Also, some people found it very difficult to conform their style or behavior to Disney standards.

Anything else you would like to share: anecdotes, observations, warnings, etc.?

Jennifer: I still have relationships with people that I met and worked with during my Disney College internship. And I’m talking about a time before social media, before I had an email address, and before Facebook.

In high school I was an exchange student to Brazil. Four years later, I turned the corner on my way to the Great Movie Ride at Disney World and literally ran into three guys I’d attended school with in Brazil. It felt like Disney magic because it was such a random “Small World” moment. There in the middle of Disney World, before email or social media, we were able to catch up with each other when I thought I’d never see any of my friends from Brazil again, for the rest of my life.

Before graduating with my Ductorate from Disney University, if I was having a bad day, and if you were paying attention, you might actually notice it — and agree. But Disney University gave me a larger worldview. Not only is everything not about me, I learned that very little is. Whether I interact with a dozen people or a thousand people on a given day, I could be a source of negativity or a source of happiness for each person. Disney really taught me to be a source of happiness — and I like to think that now I’m helping make wherever I am a little bit like the Happiest Place on Earth.

Reach out to Jennifer on Twitter with questions or feedback.

To learn more about the Disney College Program, Disney University, or the Disney International Exchange Program, check out our look at The Disney College Program.

While students from any major are eligible to apply for a spot in the Disney College Program, it may help to begin with a relevant degree focus. With that in mind, check out some of the very best schools in the hospitality and culinary industry:

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