A post reminiscing about the Walt Disney World International College Program

It’s been about six weeks since the end of my Disney World International College Program contract and I thought I’d write a retrospective piece summing up my experience.

I’m going to very quickly get those of you who didn’t read my blog up to speed. Hi, I’m Gio from the UK and this Summer (2013) I participated in the International College Program at Walt Disney World. I was an attractions cast member working at Mickey’s Philharmagic and Prince Charming’s Regal Carrousel in the Magic Kingdom. My program was about ten weeks long and I successfully completed it.

I had already done one set of working for Disney back in 2011 at Disneyland Paris and I suppose to some extent I expected my ICP to be very similar, but longer. I was prepared for more heat, for more guests and (hopefully!) less of a language barrier in the US.

This all proved true - sure Florida was hotter than Paris, yes the Magic Kingdom is the world’s busiest theme park and yes (for the most part) I didn’t have to translate things in my head in the US. What I wasn’t prepared for was the fantastic people I would meet, for the fun I’d have at work and for memories that would last a lifetime.

The Disney ICP sign-up materials billed the program as a “living, learning, earning and cultural” experience, so I thought it appropriate to review my ICP in those terms.

I suppose this is made up of two things: actually living in a shared apartment, and my free time - what I did on my days off.

As far as living in a shared apartment was concerned I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. I had opted to live with two other guys from the UK and then we were asked to be put in an apartment of 6 people total - this would mean we’d meet three new people we didn’t know. They could have been from anywhere in the world - the US, Canada, France, South Africa, China, etc. We ended up living with 3 Americans which was actually really great - although we hardly ever saw one of them, and one of them was hardly the most social person.

Because our housemates had already been part of the program for almost six months, they already had a ton of friends and we got to meet loads of them, and ended up becoming as close to their friends as our own housemates. Through one of my housemates, Kevin for example, I ended up meeting Courtney who had more of a similar schedule to me. Through Austin, I met Adrienne who I ended up having a fantastic day out with in Celebration (Courtney was there too! See, two people I met through others!).

As well as that there was of course the other 200-odd UK ICPs that came across from the UK that I met up with on days off, and of course everyone I met from work.

On my days off it was fantastic - there was almost always someone who had the day off, or who wanted to do something before or after work. One of the great perks of working for Disney of course is that you get free entry into the parks every day of the year, and you can even let your family in a set number of times.

Unsurprisingly, almost all of my favourite moments on the program were from my “living” experience - meeting new people, going out to places and having fun!

It’s not all bright news though for living - your housemates may be loud, they might drink, they might do drugs - all of which are not tolerated on the program and will result in them being “termed” ( that's “fired” for the uninitiated).

One of the worst bits of living in CP housing though is the buses - if you have a car, bring it! I have a friend who drove all the way from Quebec in Canada to Florida because of how bad the buses were on her previous program. The buses are late, packed, small, noisy, they break down and can never be relied on - beware of them!

This is a tricky one, as ICPs are not allowed to take advantage of the “study” side of the program, unless you are doing the program through your university directly.

Let me briefly explain what this is: in the US while you are at Disney you can still study your University course online and do exams at Disney. BUT Disney also offers courses of its own - on things like management and guest service - these are things that Disney leads the way in. It is a great chance to look inside the company, but this wasn’t something we were offered as ICPs. To be honest, personally I wouldn’t have had the time to do them anyway but it would have been nice to have had the opportunity.

Having said this, there were opportunities to come to drop-in sessions about interview techniques and resume/CVs reviews.

Learning happened on my days off and at work as I learnt about different aspects of American (and other) culture. As well as this, I was provided with some top quality training at Disney. Yes, I was taught how to operate the theatre and the carousel and all the emergency procedures, but I was also taught so much more.

Disney University where Traditions training happens.
Photo: whitneyswdwcpdreams.blogspot.com

Disney really prides itself on its customer service.  It was one of the most important things we were taught in our training - that’s everything from never saying ‘no’ when you don’t know the answer to a question, to a three hour class on how to treat people with disabilities so they don’t feel patronised yet get all the assistance they need: there’s even a “people-first” policy, Cast say a “guest with disabilities” not a “disabled guest”. These are all lessons that if I ever run a business myself, I will hopefully try and emulate.

Even when we toured the parks we were taught some important business lessons about Disney keeps guests happy, like never having a trash can further than 30 feet away, angling Main Street as a hill, so guests find it easier to walk down at the end of the day and all the important “show” elements that make sure customers are never distracted from the “show” that Disney puts on 247 in its parks - simple things like the costumes cast wear, themed phrases we use when delivering safety messages, not allowing guests into the parks with offensive clothing, not having background music in certain areas and so, so much more. Disney really does invest in the training of its cast.

We all knew that we weren’t doing the ICP to make money - it was all about the experience. To be perfectly honest this is something that TWDC knows and takes advantage of: ICPs and CPs are the lowest of the low as far as pay is concerned. You are working for minimum wage, in very hot conditions, with very demanding guests and you really do work for your money.

The money you earn just about covers your basic living expenses: after housing and tax I was usually left with between $90 and $150 which is just about enough for most people. You might be able to save some money - this is if you rarely go out, or eat out.

Me in costume outside Mickey's Philharmagic. 

I was hugely disappointed with the canteen when I arrived on my first day at training. Despite the poor pay, Disney does not subsidise the prices of the food. Granted they are not as expensive as the food upstairs but a decent burger costs $4 plus another $3 for a drink and fries. That’s $7 total. Maybe I was spoilt when I worked at Disneyland Paris but the food there would have cost you half the price PLUS it was much healthier. In DLP I could get salmon and pasta as a meal at any time of the day; at WDW the food was unhealthy and the limited healthy options they did have stopped being served after lunch!

Despite the negatives I have mentioned about work, it is generally a really fun job - there's not many places in the world you get paid to stand and say “Welcome” or blow bubbles, or press a few buttons for a living. You do get a lot of guest interaction, some really funny moments, and you get to meet people from all over the world - both guests and fellow Cast Members. It can be a repetitive job but it's what you make of it and very dependent on the team around you - my friends are really what made my job so much fun!

Magic Kingdom parking lot entrance - every guest coming in by car or bus sees this.

For the most part, the management and coordinators are great and will do their best to accommodate your requests whilst at work, though don’t expect them to offer any flexibility when you’re ill or need a certain day off, those sort of requests are all up to you to sort out.

There are definitely a lot of things going on that would be deemed illegal under EU and British law in the UK - such as giving people “points” when they are sick/ill. Too many and you can get fired. For being sick. This also applies to other things like not clocking in/out. The other major concern I had was when were made to work unfeasibly long days back to back - sometimes I had nine days of work in a row. Sometimes I only had 8 hours and 30 minutes in between shifts. During this time I would have to clock out of work, get the bus out of the park, get a bus home, have dinner, sleep, get up, get ready, get the two buses to work, have breakfast and clock in. It is simply impossible to do and feel good the second day. In contrast, in the UK workers must have at least 11 hours in between their shifts which at the very least allows you to get a good nights’ sleep if nothing else. There were also people on 60 and 70-hour weeks which just seems dangerous to me.

One of the most frustrating things was that if I called in for any reason on my last week - it didn’t matter whether I was laying in bed, ill or had broken both arms in a car accident - I would be immediately terminated and given a negative re-hire status. In my case as an international, this would also lead to me being deported. This is just wrong in my opinion.

Just as a side note but not everyone makes a pittance: Some of those who work at Full Service restaurants and buffets are raking in $1500-$2000 or more per week because of tips.

Cultural Exchange:
I genuinely believe the International College Program has changed my perspective on the world, I met people from all around the world - I now know people from all over the US, and I now have some great friends from Mexico, Singapore, France, Canada and Spain too. I even met people from all across the UK! The US government says that the experience is a “cultural exchange” and it really is; some of the most fun conversations were figuring out what different things we did in the UK to the US, or finding out for example that things in Mexico are a lot more similar to the US than the UK! I think if anything this was the aspect of the program I enjoyed the most!

I now have friends from around the world!

In conclusion...
The most startling thing about the program though is how quickly time disappears. I remember being with Courtney, Sarah, Kevin, and Katie watching Wishes on their last day. I had known them for 10 weeks, yet all of a sudden they were leaving, they had known each other for 8 months and all of a sudden it was all coming to an end. You would not believe how much they cried as their whole program finished. The last two weeks of your program you try to do everything you can, with the people you care about the most and unfortunately time just gets ahead of you sometimes. As cliche as it sounds it only feels like yesterday we were dropped off outside out apartment and were lugging cases up the stairs.

I highly recommend you do the program. Yes, you will go home poorer than you came. Yes, you will have long, hard days at work. And yes, the CP buses suck. But despite, all the caveats I mentioned in this post, I had the summer of my life -it was a very different experience to working at Disneyland Paris and I am SO glad I did it. I met so many incredible people, I made memories to last a lifetime and I have learnt so, so much about myself in the process. Do the program, apply and I promise you whatever expectations you have, even if they are as high as mine were, they will be blown out of the water and you will have an experience like you never thought possible.

Thank you Disney for the incredible time I had.

NEW: Want more Disney content? Download my book about my 16 months spent living and working at Disneyland Paris now on Amazon. Get the full inside scoop on my time as a Disneyland Paris Cast Member.


Popular posts from this blog

Working at Disneyland Paris 2014 - Accommodation Options

London: Things to do and Events in February