A Magical Experience: The Disney College Program

Pacing back and forth, Kyle Schwarz stares at the clock on the wall, which is ticking almost as loud as his rapid heartbeat.

As he inhaled a deep breath and let out a sigh, he knew it was time to let fate determine his future. While Schwarz knew how difficult it was to get accepted into the Disney College Program, every time he heard a “ding” go off on his phone he would instantly check it to see if it was an email from Disney.

He would either be leaving Michigan or staying, both of which would alter his life. Taking a moment to collect his thoughts and clear his head, his trembling hands picked up the phone and it was finally the email he had been waiting for. As he looked down, his eyes widened and his mouth dropped.

“Congratulations! You have been selected to participate in the Disney College Program at the Walt Disney World Resort!”

Schwarz, 25, was selected to work for a Fortune 100 company in January 2015 that is one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information, also known as the Walt Disney Company. The Disney College Program, which started in 1981, is a paid internship and an opportunity that allows college students of all majors to step outside of their comfort zones to learn a range of skills while gaining experience.

Just graduating from college and unsure of the next step, Schwarz decided to take his chances despite the odds to be one of the 50,000 applicants that apply each year. Visiting Orlando on his spring break, he immediately fell in love with the fast-paced environment of the city, friendliness of the community and the endless possibilities that a bigger city may entail. Having a deep-rooted passion for sports, Schwarz discovered he could be working for ESPN at Disney and he didn’t think twice about his decision to apply. Although it felt as if he were walking on a balance beam blindfolded, it was a risk he was willing to take.

Central Michigan University, which has been a top contributor and partner to the college program for 35 years, has an average of 70 to 100 students that apply each semester to the Disney College Program. Schwarz was fortunate to be one of the 20 to 40 students accepted into the program for a life altering journey.

Dean Wallin, a faculty representative for the Disney College program and director of the Center for Leisure Services at Central, said that the program is an outstanding experience for students to get immersed and exposed in the cultural environment and have a set of improved skills to walk away with.

“Having Disney on a resume speaks volumes,” Wallin said. “Students receive top-notch training and great expectations on how to handle guests’ problems and guests. We’re lucky to have the opportunity for our students and we continue to be a top contributor.”

While Schwarz packed up his belongings, leaving behind his life in Livonia, he then unpacked in a city that to the world was known as “the most magical place on Earth.” Spending six months working Quick Service Food and Beverage for ESPN Wide World of Sports, Schwarz had to learn to communicate with guests of different languages, and of people from all over the world.

“It opened me up to different cultures of life,” Schwarz said. “I came here and learned a lot about other personalities and had to learn to interact with a lot of different guests who didn’t speak English.”

Although his internship ended last July, the journey did not stop there. In January, Schwarz accepted an offer for a Disney professional internship for Sports and Wellness at the park Epcot.

While Schwarz had a positive experience, unfortunately not everybody who participates in the program is as lucky.

Zach Risciotti, 24, had 10 minutes to figure out where the bus stop was in his new apartment complex and what bus to take in order to make it to his orientation at Disney, also known as Traditions. As his roommates all had a different orientation time, he was on his own his first day in September 2012. Finally, figuring out which way was which on the map of the complex, Risciotti made it to the bus stop, letting out a sigh. Then he looked down at his shoes – one black and one brown.

While he had been anticipating the moment that he finally found out what his job would be during his program, a wave of nervousness washed over him. As a recruiter approached Risciotti and asked him his first and last name, they found the appropriate sticker and peeled it off to stick it on his planner. Taking a second to himself, he then looked down to read what his next five months would consist of, it read “Outdoor Foods in Epcot.”

After attending orientation for a few hours, Risciotti had the weekend off before his training at the new job location began. Finding his way around not only on Disney property, but also around the city of Orlando, he took the time to get to know his new roommates and adapt to the ever-changing lifestyle. While he was anxious to start his new job, he gave no thought to the difficulties and challenges that he might endure.

The next Monday, Risciotti took the 8 a.m. bus so that it would give him ample time to make it to work by 9:30. As he walked off the bus and heard the doors screech together behind him, a gated door approached him. Fumbling in his pocket while trying to reach for the blue keycard he had been handed at orientation to buzz him in, he slid it in the card slot but then it blinked red, not letting him through.

After several attempts, the light above his head quickly flashed green and he slipped in. Proceeding to his job location, he clocked in and waited for his trainer. Not knowing what the job of Outdoor Foods actually consisted of, Risciotti quickly learned he would be working outside on the food and beverage carts. Serving hot dogs, Mickey shaped chocolate bars, pop, water and beer by himself, was not exactly what he was expecting.

“I just remember thinking, ‘How am I supposed to meet anybody?’ How do you get to know your co-workers if you’re literally stuck on a cart for 8 to 12 hours by yourself except for training? You don’t,” Risciotti said.

After a month of misery, working long hours constantly on his feet and not feeling like he was getting the full Disney experience, Risciotti issued a job change request. He knew the odds were low to get it approved, but having a medical problem that recommended he shouldn’t be in the sun for long periods of time, he felt he might have a chance. After weeks passed and Risciotti accepted this would be his life for the next four months, a dash of pixie dust gave him hope.

“I pretty much gave up on the thought that I would get a different job. Every person I talked to said it was nearly impossible,” Risciotti said.

Even though it seemed like Risciotti was not going to be able to switch jobs, things suddenly changed when he got a phone call from an unknown number about a week later. He was told that he was going to be transferred to a Quick Service restaurant called Electric Umbrella in Epcot.

While Risciotti finished his program working in a restaurant where he felt like he belonged, the hardships and roadblocks that he had to face prior are pieces that he’ll carry with him everywhere. Risciotti’s story at Disney was only one chapter of his life. After completing his degree in business management, his program at Disney is something he’ll never forget.

“Even though it was a hard life lesson, I would without a doubt recommend it to any student,” Risciotti said. “It forced me to grow up and not to just give up when things get hard. I guess I have Mickey Mouse to thank for that.”

Although Dean Wallin, the faculty representative, said there are situations where students leave before their program has ended, it doesn’t happen too often.

“What we’re trying to do is paint the best and clearest picture,” Wallin said. “When students leave our campus, they have pretty good expectations of what it’s like there.”