In 2012, my twin sister and I, Katie, participated in the Disney College Program, a paid internship working at a Disney Park as cast members. We have our photo albums and Facebook posts as memories (holy cow, did I keep the world of Facebook updated during this time…I’ll insert some cringy posts I found), but here are some memories of our time there and answers to FAQ’s we still get!
Side Note: This program is still happening, however, so many things have changed since we participated in 2012. If you are interested in the program, definitely go check out the Disney College Program’s website for accurate and current information. However, this will give you a good idea of how great the program was for us.
How did you learn about the Disney College Program?
Katie and I were graduating in May 2012 from Washington State University with no plan in sight. We had completed the Running Start program, graduating from high school with our Associate Degrees, were young for our grade already, and about to graduate with Bachelor’s Degrees from university at the age of 19. We had zero ideas of what life held for us next, but our college days were dwindling.
It was early April (yes, one month from graduation) when we walked past a table in the CUB (our student common area at WSU). The table had a purple tablecloth with gold writing that asked, “Do you want to work for Disney?” The question should have been, “Who doesn’t want to work for Disney?!” in our eyes. We nervously approached the table to talk to the recruiter. We signed up for a meeting that would give us more information.
At that meeting, it was told to us to make sure and sign-in, because going to this meeting (I remember it being fairly extensive) would raise our chances of getting accepted into the competitive program. We listened, got excited, went back to our apartments, and submitted our applications online.
How long did the application process take?
Looking back in my mind, it felt like an eternity finding out if we had been accepted, but when I look back in my email, from applying to be accepted, the process only took 1 week. My application was submitted on April 4, 2012, and I was accepted on April 11, 2012. I think Katie was 1 day ahead of me in the process, but it took the same amount of time for her.
What was the application process like?
To apply, there was an online application form, followed by a long questionnaire. If you passed the questionnaire, then you moved onto a phone interview and that was it!
How competitive is the program?
The program is fairly competitive. Currently, around 50,000 students apply for the program every year, with about 12,000 being accepted between both Disneyland and Disney World. I don’t remember meeting anyone else who was there with their sibling, let alone twin. I would be curious to know if there were other twins who got to do the program together.
Katie and I are obviously huge fans of being twins and are best friends. Doing the program alone would have still been fun, but having gone through the experience together was super special! It was also very crazy and unlikely that we both were assigned to work in the same park, Magic Kingdom.
How did you do a college program after you were set to graduate already?
The DCP accepts students for the semester after they have already graduated. As long as you were still enrolled in college at the time of your applying, you were eligible. Most people we met in the program had taken a semester-long break to be there.
It’s called a ‘College’ program, were there classes offered to earn college credit?
Yes, the program offers college courses and you can earn college credits. We initially had signed up for a couple of classes. But, when we got there, we realized that since we didn’t need any more credits (as we had just graduated), we would rather spend our free time playing in the parks instead.
Expenses of a Paid Internship
What did it cost to participate in the program?
There was an initial fee for a housing deposit and to participate in the program. You also needed to pay to get yourself to the park you were accepted at (our case was Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL). I don’t remember the exact number, but I think it was around $400. Our grandparents generously gifted us this money, as we were BROKE college students. We also had to pay weekly for our housing that was provided by Disney, but this came directly out of our paychecks.
Were you paid while working in the program?
Yes, we were paid. But, not a lot. We worked pretty much full time and were paid an hourly rate depending on our jobs. I was a Photopass Photographer and was paid ~$9/hour and Katie worked in merchandise and was paid ~$7/hour.
I remember after the cost of housing was taken out and taxes, each week, I would take home about $120. That was enough to carefully budget a Walmart grocery trip and have a few dollars to spare for spending at the parks. Thankfully, being a Disney employee had its financial advantages in other ways…we never paid to go play in any of the parks and got discounts everywhere in the parks, in Downtown Disney, and a lot of places in Orlando and its’ surrounding areas.
The Disney College Program offered many free events for its interns and these would be catered. They also offered events like ‘Grocery Bingo’ where you could win a week’s worth of groceries and you betcha did I play to win!
Did you have to buy your costumes?
No, costumes were rented to us for free and laundered by the Disney Costuming Department. There was some kind of tracking sewn into each garment, so you could just toss your dirties down the shoot outside of Costuming and it would automatically scan your items back in. Picture a library book return, but for clothing. More on the costumes later…
The one thing you did need to buy was your own shoes. Depending on your job, they needed to be solid white tennis shoes or solid black tennis shoes and not have any logos on them. So cute, I know.
The day I bought my shoes for $60 (a small fortune for a broke college kid) I left them on the bus and they were never found. I cried. Then had to repurchase the ugly shoes.
How much did housing cost?
Depending on which apartment complex you lived in and how many people were in your apartment (anywhere from 2-8 people could live in one apartment), about $100 was taken from our paychecks, weekly. When I looked at the DCP website, this has gone up to $175-$215 a week, depending on your apartment size.
What was housing like?
The apartment complex we were in was the newest of the 3 different complexes. The apartments were beautiful, spacious, and clean. The complex was meticulously maintained and we were expected to keep the insides of our apartments just as clean.
We had 6 girls, under the age of 21, living in one apartment together. It was a three-bedroom, three-bathroom unit. Two girls lived per room, sharing an en suite bathroom. We had one full-size kitchen and a common area. Disney Housing provided all the furniture and kitchen wares.
Disney also did random checks on your apartment to make sure you were keeping it CLEAN and also checked for any alcohol as we were in the underage apartments and would be immediately booted from the program if we were drinking in our apartment. I remember the checks happened every few weeks. I was never there when someone came, but all of our roommates took extra care of the apartment, as we did not want to be expelled from the program.
How did you get assigned roommates?
You could live in an apartment with 2-8 people. A lot of people networked on Social Media before arriving to find roommates. Katie and I decided to wing it, knowing we could at least live with each other. You could mutually choose to live with people or you could let the good folks of Disney pick for you. So, we chose each other and ended up in a 6-person apartment. The other 4 girls were strangers to us.
This was also interesting for us because it was the first experience we had with roommates. In college, we only lived with each other and our brother. We were finally getting the experience of sharing a space with strangers.
How did you get places? Did you need a car?
Only one of our roommates had a car and she would sometimes drive us places, but 98% of the time we relied on the Disney bus system. The buses would take you to any of the parks and also take you to grocery stores and Downtown Disney. The buses were free for us to use in the program, but were never fast and not very reliable.
Because most CP participants were given the night-shifts, we would all be getting off at the same time and literally be pushing and fighting our way onto the buses, sometimes at 2 AM. Those were the nights when I would need to remind myself that I was happy to be here.
I don’t think anyone could have prepared us for the amount of time involved in getting places. There was never a quick trip to the store and getting to work on time meant giving yourself at least an hour of cushion time. Buses were often running late or too full to let you on.
Roles (Our Jobs)
What were your jobs?
I (Kristen) had the role of a Photopass Photographer. I felt super lucky to have received this position, as there were about 40 roles you could end up with. During the application process, you could mark if there were any jobs you absolutely wouldn’t do (I did not refuse any job), but during the interview, you would need to tell the interviewer your top three choices and why you would be a good fit for those. I remember my number one role choice was working in the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, and my second choice was Photopass photographer. (In hindsight, I am thankful that Photopass was where I landed because I got to work in so many more places, be outside a lot and meet way more people. If I would have been in the boutique, I would be indoors all day and only meet the clients. Which, still sounds totally fun, but in a different way.)
I worked in the Magic Kingdom and my job consisted of photographing guests in front of the castle, with characters (I mostly worked with Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, Aurora, Rapunzel, and Snow White) and also working in The View, where people could look at and purchase photos.
I loved working in the character rooms because they were fast-paced. I can’t remember so much of my experience, sadly, but if I had to guess, characters that were working indoors, would have 45-minute meet and greet shifts. So, for that length of time, there would be a steady stream of people meeting the character(s) as I took their photos.
Things have changed since I worked there, but in 2012, we had to scan the person’s QR code on their Photopass card, which looked like a credit card, so that they would have digital access to see the photos later.
I wasn’t a huge fan of working outside taking pictures of people in front of the castle, because it felt much slower. You would set your camera up on a tripod in the evenings and couldn’t move from your position until someone came to bump you to your next location. The fun part about being outside was if you were out there when a parade came through. This meant packing up and watching the parade and also getting to snap candid photos of people watching. The candid photos were always my favorite to take!
Another favorite memory was capturing engagements. I remember wondering why I hadn’t lucked out and gotten to shoot any engagements, because so many other photographers had, and that same day, I had gotten to shoot multiple!
Katie landed the role of Merchandise, working in Adventureland in Magic Kingdom. In her words → As a Merchandise Cast Member, I worked in the Pirates of the Caribbean shop, Adventureland Bazaar, Island Supply, and a handful of outdoor kiosks sprinkled throughout Adventureland. My job consisted of ringing up guests, restocking inventory, making sure everything was in its exact spot, gathering up all of the scooters and strollers at the end of the night, and throwing in ‘Magic Moments’ for guests to make their trip a little more memorable. Working in the shops was fun, but working Glow was wayyy more fun.
Working Glow, meant selling light-up toys on the streets of Magic Kingdom at night. Every evening, 15-20 Glow Cast Members would start their shift at the same time. We would take inventory of our pre-loaded glow carts making sure we had the correct amount of toys then have our ‘lunch break’ where we would all eat dinner together in the Mouseketeeria (located in the utilidor) before hitting the streets. Each shift, we would randomly be assigned to a station where we would park our carts, and sell glowing toys for cash. We each wore a black money apron that would be packed with cash by the end of the night. The best part of working Glow was working the sword cart. There is only one sword cart that ONLY sells light up swords (they were $10 then, I’m sure they are more now). The beauty of the sword cart was that you got to walk around the Magic Kingdom instead of staying in one place, AND you got to start off the parades. If you’ve ever been to a Disney parade, the streets are marked off where all guests must keep clear, creating a wide-open path. The sword cart would start at the beginning of the parade route and walk right down the middle of the path and guests would buy swords left and right, usually emptying the cart. These were the best nights.
How did you get your costumes?
There is a huge warehouse that stored all of the costumes. You would scan in with your ID and find your costume based on your role. Our different jobs required different costumes depending on where we were working. It was important to make sure you grabbed the correct costume(s) for this reason.
To keep the lands separate and keep the magic alive, cast members would travel backstage (just going behind what the public sees or travel underground through the tunnels, called the utilidors) and pop up in the correct land we were supposed to be working in.
What are the Utilidors?
The utilidors are the underground tunnel system that run under almost the entirety of Magic Kingdom.
When the park was designed, Walt wanted to keep as much magic alive as possible. You will notice (or more likely you WON’T notice) that Cast Members aren’t really seen walking to their work locations through the park. They seem to magically just appear at their worksite. This is because they are traveling in the tunnels below.
The tunnels are nothing fancy, they are in fact very industrial and hide the ‘ugly’ from the public. You can read more about the utilidors here: https://www.disneyfanatic.com/12-terrific-facts-about-the-magic-kingdom-utilidors/ or check out the video below.
What is the ‘Disney Look’?
“At Disney Parks, we’ve become famous for our friendly, classic appearance. This look is not a coincidence, but a result of our cast members’ support of the Appearance Standards, or as we call it, the Disney Look.
The Disney Look is a classic look that is clean, natural, polished and professional, and avoids “cutting edge” trends or extreme styles. It is designed with our costumed and non-costumed cast members in mind. Our themed costumed cast members are a critical part of enhancing the experience of our Disney show, and our non-costumed cast members also play an important role as representatives of the Disney brand. Regardless of the position you hold with us, when you take pride in your appearance, you become a role model for those around you, and you convey the attitude of excellence that has become synonymous with the Disney name.” –Disney Careers
I remember upon arrival to the DCP, you were told if something needed to be changed about your look to fit their guidelines and you had 24 hours to change it or be sent home. For example, there was a girl in my group during the paperwork side of starting our jobs with WDW, who had hair that was poorly bleached and very orange. She was told to go get her hair color corrected to a natural tone before the next day in order to keep her role.
Also, during the interview process, you had to disclose any tattoos or piercings that would be visible. If they were not areas that could be covered with clothing, you would need to remove those piercings or cover the tattoos with makeup while working.
What was your work schedule?
Our work schedules felt so random and we usually had the late shifts. More often than not, I was shutting the park down, sometimes getting home as late as 2AM in the morning. As a young adult, I preferred this schedule, because it allowed me to sleep in, then go play at the parks before my shift started. Also, I preferred working at nighttime, because the vibe was more relaxed in the evenings. Working in the evenings also meant I got to work a lot of parties, which were always super fun!
Did you encounter any celebrities while working at WDW?
Katie brushed backs with Joey Fatone from Nsync. We both saw Neil Patrick Harris perform at the Candlelight Processional in EPCOT. I saw John Travolta from about 20 feet away, but was working at The View and couldn’t get to him…super sad about it. A co-worker got to talk to him and said he was super nice. Another co-worker got to help Holly Madison and I was bummed I missed her, because I loved The Girls Next Door. I saw Tommy Hilfiger.
The day of the Fantasyland grand opening, Jennifer Goodwin hosted and Jordan Sparks performed. Also that day, while Katie and I were waiting to meet Mickey for the umpteenth time when a few members of the Disney family were meeting him in front of us. I remember hearing their names and hearing Cast Members get all excited, and also seeing that they had a guest services cast member escorting them, but can’t remember the life of me who they actually were…still fun though.
How often did you play in the parks?
We played as often as we could. Since we weren’t taking any college course while there, any time we weren’t working, we were free to play. As a cast member, we could go to any of the four Disney parks (EPCOT, Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios) for free, any time.
More often than not, I would go to the park an hour or two before my shift so that I could get a few rides in. One of my favorite things to do was get in the single rider line at Space Mountain and ride that a few times, then pop back down to the utilidors where my locker was, change and go to work.
It was a rare day to have the day off and not go play at one of the parks. I remember having a sense of urgency to squeeze every thing in that I could. Even living and working at the parks for 4 months, I barely kissed the surface of things to see and do. It was never not fun.
Another favorite way to spend a day off was heading to Downtown Disney, grabbing a soft pretzel with nacho cheese and sneaking that into the movie theater. This was 2012 when a movie theater with reclining leather seats was rare, and Downtown Disney had these kinds of seats. It felt so luxurious. And one of the best parts was that our movie tickets and pretzels were discounted since we were cast members.
Did you have any visitors while working at WDW?
Oh yea! We had lots of visitors. Our parents came, brother and his friend, my grandparents and both our boyfriends (husbands now) came to visit us while there.
I know that this has changed since and I’m not sure to what, but while we were there, we had passes loaded onto our employee cards to get friends/family in. If I remember correctly, we had 7 passes. Each pass could get up to 3 people into the parks for the day. So, when our parents came to visit, only Katie OR I had to use 1 of our passes to get them both in for free.
How much time off did you get?
I know this has also changed since, but when we worked at WDW, you could take as much time off as you wanted, as long as it was approved in advance and you had worked enough hours to cover your housing cost for the week. When we had visitors, I took SO much time off. I think I had 8 consecutive days off when my parents came, 4 consecutive days off when my boyfriend (now husband) came and ample time off when my grandparents and brother came. I do not think this was normal to take so much time off and Katie had a harder time getting her shifts covered working in merchandise. I also don’t regret taking that time off. I used it to be the ultimate tour guide to my family and soaked it all up.
Would we do it again?
Absolutely! In a heartbeat! This program is magical, for a lack of a better word. The Disney Magic is only enhanced having learned so many behind-the-scenes secrets (secrets that I would feel wrong disclosing to the internet, although, I am sure you can find fun facts elsewhere) . This was not a money making experience (our parents had to buy our plane tickets home, because we couldn’t afford to), but we didn’t come for money. We came for the experience and milked it as much as possible. Not only was the time spend with the company beautiful, it helped prepare us for the working world and helped our resumes stand out. If you are a college student, at least throw in your application and see what happens!
Work hard, play hard. You’ll work long hours, have the shifts no one else wants, and get paid almost nothing but as long as you have a good attitude, you’ll also have more fun and make more memories than you can imagine.-Fantasyland Merchandise in Fall 2014; Meghann Porter