Night has fallen in Florida. The clock is close to striking mid- night, yet Main Street, U.S.A only appears to glow brighter than ever before.
As a crowd of hundreds gathers in its bustling square, sporting Mickey Mouse ears and sparkling tiaras, magenta fireworks explode over the tallest spires of a familiar castle, dissolving into a darkening sky. The crowd gasps in awe as music blares.
Madeleine West is listening from a nearby restaurant as the spectacle unfolds outside. It’s the nightly firework show at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, and she has a front-row seat to the magic. Although dressed in her Disney employee uniform, her name tag reveals another important detail: MADELEINE WEST, UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA, it reads. West is a sophomore, but through the Disney College Program, this has become her classroom for the semester – the “happiest place on earth.”
Students from across the globe come to work at Disney World each year through the Disney College Program. A five to seven month work experience opportunity, the program draws in young adults from all sorts of universities and diverse majors to work inside the parks at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, and Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
For West, a hospitality major and Honors college student from Jasper, Alabama, working at Disney through the Disney College Program is a literal dream come true, and something she had set her sights on ever since beginning school at The University of Alabama.
“The end goal is always Disney for me,” she said.
West received word of her admission to the Disney College Program in the fall of 2017. In a video posted to her Instagram account, she is seen grinning and lip-sync- ing along to the end chorus of a Disney tune.
“I’m going to Walt Disney World!” a sign in her hands reads, then scrawled underneath in cursive, “Disney College Program Spring 2018!”
The application to the Disney College Program is a highly competitive three-step process, including an online application, a web-based interview and a phone inter- view with a company representative. Once students receive notification they’ve been accepted, they also learn about their job posting. Months later, they’re a Disney World employee – name tag and all.
“I remember the first day I got my official name tag and everything,” West said, “I went to Magic Kingdom right after that, and it was really, really cool to go with my roommates as our first time as official cast members.”
Now, she works at Casey’s Corner, a restaurant on Main Street in Magic Kingdom. She enjoys bringing the magic she always experienced on visits to Walt Disney World as a child to guests from all over the world.
While not your traditional classroom experience, there are plenty of learning opportunities that come with the Disney College Program. It is possible to take classes and receive college credit while working at Disney World, although classes are not required while working a full-time job in the parks. But for Ashley Milligan, a semester in the park was the perfect inter- section between her academic interests and her love of Disney.
A mechanical engineering major at The University of Alabama, Milligan did the Disney College Program in the spring of 2016, then returned to Florida for a professional internship the fall semester of 2017 with Magic Kingdom Engineering Services.
When she realized she could learn more about engineering and physics while working at Disney World at the same time, it was only natural she apply. The precise movements of animatronics, the mechanics of roller coaster cars and the special effects that went into bringing ghosts, American Presidents and unruly pirates to life fascinated her, and her time as an intern at Disney provided an insightful glimpse into the magic kingdom.
“We went to Pandora at 5 a.m. and went and saw all the maintenance bays and how all the rides work, toured distribution services, and then we did a Fantasmic backstage tour,” Milligan said. “That was cool, seeing it all from an engineering aspect.”
She even got to explore her favorite attraction, the Haunted Mansion, and got a glimpse at how engineering is used to bring those famous “grim, grinning ghosts” to life.
Back on UA’s campus, Milligan still finds small ways to incorporate magic into her role as a college student. Inside Lloyd Hall on a brisk February afternoon, even her wardrobe – a T-shirt for Animal Kingdom’s newest attraction, Pandora: The World of Avatar – speaks to her time spent at Disney World. She smiles as she recalls working at The World of Disney store in Disney Springs, the largest store dedicated to Disney merchandise in the world. Other favorite memories include getting to chat with the members of A capella group Voices of Liberty during a special meet-and-greet, and spending her birthday exploring EPCOT.
“I was really glad that I enjoyed my work location,” she said. “And I had really great roommates too.”
For her, Disney is a part of life. It even has the power to become the stepping stone for life-long friendships. Milligan found one of her freshman roommates, Taylor Baglietto, on UA’s housing website through their mutual love of Disney. When they were both accepted into the Disney College Program in the spring of 2016, they were happily roommates once more.
Baglietto, an Honors student who graduated from UA in December and now lives in Dallas, Texas, still reminisces on her time at the Disney College Program, despite now living over 1,000 miles away from the “happiest place on earth.”
“One of the best things about the college program is all the friends that you make,” she said. She laughs at memories of sharing stories after work, late night adventures and chatting with characters at the parks with friends.
But being a Disney employee isn’t always all sparkles and glamor. Sometimes, as Baglietto describes, it’s picking up scattered Mr. Potato Head parts off the carpet in a crowded store, or trying to communicate with customers who speak different languages. A job at Disney World is still a job, and requires hard work.
“Working at Disney definitely taught me to be more flexible, since I was changing roles all the time, and dealing with people from different cultures and back- grounds,” Baglietto said. “We had to think on our feet a lot.”
While accompanied by its fair share of challenges, from being away from the familiarity of home or a college campus, or adjusting to new work hours, all three girls find the Disney College Program to be a rewarding and magical opportunity.
“It was just a great experience and I wouldn’t have changed it any other way,” Baglietto said. “I think anybody who has any interest in just a unique college experience, or if you’re a Disney super-fan like myself – go for it. If your schedule allows it, why not?”
Five-hundred miles north, on The University of Alabama’s campus, the Disney Club is available to offer advice to students who think that being a part of this world might be meant for them.
“Be patient, be yourself,” Baglietto advised to prospective applicants. “You don’t have to have any work experience, you don’t have to have any volunteer experience. If you think that you’re a good fit and you can prove that in your interviews, it will be fine.”
Even at the end of the night at Magic Kingdom, when the fireworks die down, the rides close their doors and the ticket turnstiles stop turning, that feeling of fulfillment and happiness Baglietto described still lingers in the air.
“Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy,” the famous inscription over the entrance reads.
And thanks to the Disney College Program, for these UA students and alumni, that world of fantasy has transformed into reality.