Disney teaches college students hospitality

Scott Niles of Madison has the Disney Look. So do Jaymie Hammer of Hayward and Marissa Naslund, a St. Louis native who attends Marquette University.

They are three of at least 60 students from Wisconsin colleges and tech schools who are spending a few months at a Walt Disney World Resort property, earning both academic credit and wages.

Your vacation is their work experience, and some of your magical moments may well be their idea or responsibility.

Disney employs almost 60,000 people at its Orlando area properties, 40 square miles that encompass its 22 resort hotels, four theme parks, two waterparks, six golf courses and other entertainment/sports/shopping complexes.

Students who enroll in the Disney College Program learn about the business of hospitality while working entry-level jobs at $6.67 to $7.17 per hour. They are called “cast members,” not employees, and will work at least 30 hours per week, “on stage” (in public view) or “backstage” (with minimal guest contact).

They have the option of taking classes – such as leadership, self-marketing, communications – beyond their employee training. The specific job – be it housekeeping, retail sales, guest services, lifeguard – has resume value because the employer is Disney, the standards are high and students learn generic skills (problem solving, how to work fast and accurately) that are useful elsewhere.

The students’ cheery demeanor and clean-cut looks are no coincidence. Appearance and behavior rules – categorized online as the Disney Look – are specific and strict. That includes no visible tattoos, purple hair, pierced tongues or sloppy uniforms. Nametags go on the left shoulder area, not on a lanyard or baseball cap. Avoid wearing sunglasses; they “are a block to interpersonal communication with guests.”

Some students will head south without knowing a soul at Disney. They share furnished apartments with peers from across the nation, and sometimes the world. Each pays $71 to $90 per week for lodging.

A job perk is free admission to the Disney theme parks – Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom – and other discounts.

Scott Niles, 23, works the concession stands at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex, a 220-acre and multi-use hub of indoor and outdoor facilities that accommodate major league baseball games, national cheerleading competitions, lacrosse to field hockey, gymnastics to track and field tournaments.

He flips burgers, stocks inventory, makes sure athletes have what they need. It is a captivating setting for this guy, who is interested in many sports and eventually would like to coach, “teaching fundamentals and strategy,” maybe in wrestling.

“Everybody has to start out somewhere,” says Scott, who studies recreational management at Madison Area Technical College. “You get out what you put in.”

Being a batboy, during Atlanta Braves’ spring training, has been a highlight. “I can live with wearing a Braves’ baseball cap because the team used to be in Milwaukee,” he jokes. Soon the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers arrive, for summer practice.

Living with five guys in a three-bedroom apartment has worked pretty well, Scott says. “We’re all connected by I-90,” representing Maryland to Washington.

Marissa Naslund is one of a dozen people per shift who staff “The Seas with Nemo & Friends” pavilion at Epcot Center. Marine life dominates a Clam-Mobile ride that involves animation and a huge aquarium. Other exhibits, many interactive, also are about underwater environments.

Marissa and co-workers change tasks hourly; they maneuver wheelchairs, answer questions, help children color pictures, monitor exhibits, narrate and help guests on/off of the ride.

The biomedical engineering major at Marquette likes the variety of her work setting, and interacting with the public. “I’m not stuck in a cubicle,” she observes.

Jaymie Hammer, majoring in hospitality and tourism management at UW-Stout, is a greeter and hostess at the classy ’Ohana restaurant in Disney’s Polynesian Resort, near the Magic Kingdom. Although family-friendly, it’s also the kind of place where romance flourishes and marriage is proposed.

Work at a McDonald’s and Famous Dave’s preceded this job, and Jaymie dreams of owning her own restaurant. What she learns from Disney and at UW-Stout likely will benefit the Lac Courte Oreilles Casino; she is a part of this Native American tribe.

“I may go back there to work, in administration,” she says.

A part of her job is to “make magical moments” for guests, by anticipating or honoring special requests with other staff. “It puts you in a good mood,” Jaymie says. “There are so many little things that can make a person feel better” after standing in lines or getting sunburned.

“This place has a nice vibe,” she notes, because the emphasis is on helping customers relax and feel like they’re part of one big family. Polynesian dance demos and games for children help make this happen.

By the time May ends, most of this round of interns will have returned to their home states. A few will continue as professional interns, a higher rung on the Disney employment ladder.

For more about the Disney College Program: www.disneycollegeprogram.com,