Industry welcomes magical transformation of Disney interns

Students say the Disney College Program teaches skills they can't learn in class. Jon Marcus reports

March 31, 2011

Credit: Blaine Harrington III/Alamy
Kingdom come: Now in its 30th year, an internship programme run by the entertainment giant that combines work in Disney theme parks with classroom study attracts hundreds of applications for every place

Candice Tickle is a third-year marketing student at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen.

But for the moment, her classroom is the concierge desk of a resort hotel designed in the Spanish-colonial/Mexican style and situated beside an artificial lake with fake Mayan ruins on what was once a central Florida swamp.

Ms Tickle is an intern at Walt Disney World, and a participant in a programme that is little known outside the hospitality industry but nonetheless attracts thousands of university students.

Those who are accepted typically spend six months working in the gigantic theme park, attending classes to earn university credit, and learning how Disney's entertainment complex does what it does.

"I have learned how to use my initiative, which has helped enhance my skills in customer service, in a way that I would not have been able to do in a classroom," said Ms Tickle.

The Disney College Program is entering its 30th year, and although some academics question the value of, and refuse to award credit for, its unapologetically vocational approach, it remains one of the most competitive internships in the world.

It attracts hundreds of applicants for every place, and participants say they learn more useful lessons in the fantasyland of Disney's theme parks than they are taught at their home universities.

"They really opened my eyes to how the business works," said Malcolm Hopwood, who was a Disney intern in 1984 while a student at the University of Surrey, serving up pricey fish and chips at a faux British pub. He now works for catering giant Sodexo.

"It was quite different to our course. Back at college, the focus was still really on the traditional side of learning about food and beverage, whereas Disney was much more focused on systems and customers."

With some 12,000 interns a year, and about 7,000 at any given time, this hidden corner of Disney is, in fact, much like a university.

Dormitory-style housing is provided with common areas and banks of internet-connected computer terminals for students.

There are nine dedicated classrooms at Walt Disney World, led by 13 instructors with master's degrees and PhDs. They teach university-level courses in areas such as organisational leadership, corporate communication and marketing.

The programme is also the unlikely focus of a heightening argument in the US academy over theoretical versus applied education, especially in fields such as hospitality and marketing.

Students in the Disney programme "learn professionalism", according to Brian Blake, a former executive at Trusthouse Forte who is now placement director for hospitality and tourism management at San Diego State University.

"They're by themselves for the first time. They learn to get along with a very, very diverse group of students."

He said that other employers, including major international hotel chains, "without a doubt all value the programme because of those transferable skills and learning how to solve problems and (improve) customer service".

These skills are increasingly hard to teach to a generation accustomed to texting and tweeting, he said.

Yet some academic faculty at San Diego State refuse to award academic credit for the Disney internships and the accompanying courses, even though they are certified by the American Council on Education.

"They don't feel that those classes are equivalent to a college-level course," Mr Blake said. "That is higher education's big debate. It's the old debate over whether universities should be there to teach academic courses or professional development. Some of my professors won't entertain it. They will not do it."

Disney itself does not engage in this argument, and is reluctant to talk about the programme at all. And while unions representing most of the 48,000 full-time Walt Disney World employees have previously criticised the programme as a source of cheap labour, no one from the principal Disney employees' union, which has recently negotiated a new contract with the company, responded to requests for comment.

But the US hospitality industry is growing by three percentage points faster than the average of all other industries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and even in an economic downturn has been having trouble filling jobs.

The accommodation and food services sector already makes up about 8 per cent of all employment nationally, accounting for nearly 9.5 million workers.

The Disney College Program is an "integrated strategy to create a pipeline of talent for us", said Kristi Breen, who directs the programme. She is a former Disney intern who was assigned to Disneyland Paris while an undergraduate studying international relations.

About 15 per cent of interns end up working full-time for the company after graduation, she noted.

Ms Breen said that working in the real world of customer service, even in a place where the intent is to suspend belief, has the benefit of transforming students in ways that conventional pedagogy cannot.

Her views are echoed by independent academic advocates of such programmes.

"We're a learn-by-doing institution," said Andy Feinstein, dean of the Collins College of Hospitality Management at California Polytechnic State University, Pomona, where students are required to complete 800 hours of work experience over the course of their degree study.

"Maybe some courses that are more theoretical might have issues with this programme, but it teaches exactly what our students are lacking - the chance to work with people all day long. Because that is our industry."

Disney approaches its education programme with its trademark attention to detail.

"They're cultivating the future leaders of their organisation, and they're one of the few organisations that take that so seriously," Dr Feinstein said.

During their time at Disney, interns are required to take one or more course modules, each with a minimum of 44 contact hours, and they are also drilled in skills such as making eye contact.

"They have leaders with them and are given coaching and feedback, and they have to kind of get out there," Ms Breen said. "They might be a bit shy and not have those communication skills. Sometimes it just takes practice and they have not been in a position of having to do it before. We really empower our cast members to make decisions and not necessarily find a manager to go and fix an issue."

That is the life skill that seems to most impress academic observers.

"Students come back a lot more sophisticated," said Rolando Montoya, provost of Miami Dade College.

"They acquire a lot of discipline. They become more punctual. They become better time managers. They learn verbal communication skills. In general, they acquire what we call transferable skills."

There is dispute over whether these skills have become harder to teach.

Mr Blake said students today lack interpersonal communication skills. And Ms Breen, who has also worked in the university sector, said the Disney programme evolves with every generation.

But prospective interns, she said, have always been "timid, shy kids who weren't really focused and didn't even know what they wanted to major in. They'll spend six months here living with people from around the world and have to manage on their own.

"We work on their confidence level and communication skills, and that's the biggest thing. People just change. They're allowed to learn."

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