It is one of the world's most visited attractions, drawing in millions who want to experience the "most magical place on Earth." But for some Lander University students, the Disney World experience is more than a fairytale vacation - it's an educational adventure.
Each year, a handful of Lander students head to Orlando, Fla., to take part in the Walt Disney World College Program, a unique pairing of academics and real-world experience in leadership, diversity, and personal and professional development, according to the program guide.
"The program offers students an opportunity to mature and gain valuable experience in the workforce," said Lander director of Career Services Jennifer P. Turman, who serves as an adviser to program enrollees.
The Disney college program, open to students from all majors, has trained thousands of people from nations across the globe. About five Lander students are accepted each year, and the program acts as a noncredit co-op class that allows the students to keep a full-time status while away from the university, Turman said. For five to seven months, participants live in company-sponsored housing near the world-famous complex, and they receive Disney training in a variety of areas, including company history, guest services, problem solving, communication, teamwork, personal responsibility and self-confidence.
Participants then hone those skills in Disney's 47-square-mile "learning laboratory," complete with theme parks, water parks and a dining, entertainment and retail complex. The students work in entry-level, front-line positions such as operations, food and beverage service, merchandise, recreation, hospitality and entertainment, according to the guide.
"It really was a magical experience," said Lander senior mass communication major Miranda Asson of Greer, who participated in the Disney college program in 2006. "Even though you're working, you still get pulled in by the atmosphere at Disney. You feel like a kid again and that anything is possible."
Like all Disney participants, Asson had to apply, audition and be interviewed before she was accepted into the program. With a background that includes school theatre, music and journalism, she knew which program division she wanted to take on - entertainment.
For about nine hours each day, Asson worked in theme parks and restaurants, enhancing guests' experiences with Disney's beloved cast of characters, including Chip and Dale, the mice from Cinderella, Timon from The Lion King, and Terk from Tarzan. To be effective as a character performer, Asson said she had to learn to maneuver through the crowds and interact with guests using only body language.
In addition to their Disney training and internships, participants can enroll in the program's collegiate academic courses, which are recommended for credit by the American Council on Education. Asson studied marketing and communications, which she was able to transfer for co-op and elective credit at Lander.
Lander's Turman said one of the most valuable aspects of the program is the diversity its participants experience in the parks and in the classrooms. "These students are exposed to a wide variety of nationalities, languages, cultures and backgrounds - from both the people who visit the Disney parks and from the other students who take part in the college program," she said. "This exposure gives them the characteristics needed to become successful in a global and diverse economy."
Graduates of the college program are eligible to apply for advanced internships with Disney, which provide opportunities for students to work in jobs more closely related to their college majors, according to the company. The program is also open to college graduates, and Lander alumnus Lonnie Nesbitt of Columbia packed his bags for Disney World after earning a mass communication degree from Lander in 2007.
He became curious about the Disney program when several of his college friends participated. He'll complete his internship in January of 2009, after spending a year learning about everything from merchandising to attractions.
"My experience has been wonderful, and I've built relationships with great people," said Nesbitt, who was a member of Lander's University Program Council and the Omega Psi Phi fraternity while at the university. "For me, the best part has been the opportunity for personal growth."
Nesbitt said he plans to turn his program experience into an actual career in events and entertainment with Disney. "I'm already applying the skills I've learned here to my daily life," he said. "Disney teaches you how to enjoy what you are doing and to make the best out of where you are."
Asson hopes her Disney experience will be just the magic she needs to begin a career in the entertainment industry following her graduation from Lander. Until then, she is serving as the Disney college program representative for the Lander campus, helping to recruit more students into the program that has, for Asson, been a fairytale come true.
"I learned a lot and I made great friends," she said. "I am so glad that I took part in the most magical internship ever."