At Disney World, interns are everywhere. The bellboy carrying luggage up to your room, the monorail “pilot” steering a train at forty miles per hour, the smiling young woman scanning tickets at the gate. They corral visitors into the line for Space Mountain, dust sugar over funnel cakes, sell mouse ears, sweep up candy wrappers. Mickey, Donald, Pluto and the gang may well be interns, boiling in their furry costumes in the Florida heat. Visiting the Magic Kingdom recently, I tried to count them, scanning for the names of colleges on the blue and white name tags that all “cast members” wear. They came from public and private schools, community colleges and famous research universities, from across America. International interns, hailing from at least nineteen different countries, were also out in force. A sophomore from Shanghai greeted customers at the Emporium on Main Street, U.S.A. She was one of hundreds of Chinese interns, she told me, and she was looking forward to “earning her ears.” Disney runs one of the world’s largest internship programs. Each year, between 7,000 and 8,000 college students and recent graduates work full-time, minimum-wage, menial internships at Disney World. Typical stints last four to five months, but the “advantage programs” may last up to seven months.

Rather than offer traditional summer internships, Disney’s schedule is determined by the company’s manpower needs, requiring students to temporarily suspend their schooling or continue it on Disney property and on Disney terms. The interns work entirely at the company’s will without sick days or time off, without grievance procedures, without guarantees of workers’ compensation or protection against harassment or unfair treatment. Twelve-hour shifts are typical, many beginning at 6 a.m. or stretching past midnight. Interns sign up without knowing their assignments or their compensation, though it typically hovers near minimum wage. “Do any of these guests know that if not for these students their vacations would not exist?” former intern Wesley Jones asked in his book Mousecatraz.

At Disney World, labor is meant to have an almost invisible quality. Except for the name tags, nothing distinguishes interns for the visitor; in certain parts of the park, at certain times of day, they comprise more than 50 percent of staff. Their work is identical to what permanent employees do, and there’s no added supervision, training, or mentoring on the job. The internship’s educational component is a three- or four-hour class each week, offering some of the easiest college credits in the land. Students are also encouraged to obtain credit through networking, distance learning, and “individualized learning opportunities.” Many interns do nothing scholastic, given that Disney doesn’t require it and that twelve-hour shifts are exhausting enough.

Like other employers, Disney has mastered how to rebrand ordinary jobs as exciting opportunities. “We’re not there to flip burgers or to give people food,” a fast food intern told the Associated Press. “We’re there to create magic.” Should the magic fail, the program at least seems to promise professional development and the prestige of the Disney name. Yet training and education are afterthoughts: the kids are brought in to work. Having traveled thousands of miles and barely breaking even financially, they find themselves cleaning hotel rooms, performing custodial work, and parking cars in the guise of an academic exercise. A small number of College Program “graduates” are offered full-time positions at Disney. The housing is designed to scale the program to massive proportions, where the savings of not employing full-timers, who demand benefits and have unions, kick in. Mandatory communal housing, the cost of which is deducted from their paychecks, may make the experience fun and memorable, like college, but it also looks like a term of indenture: living on company property, eating company food, and working when the company says so.

In its scale, the Disney program is unusual, if not unique. Although technically legal, the program has grown up over thirty years to become an eerie model, a microcosm of an internship culture gone haywire. The word “internship” has no set meaning, but at Disney World it signifies cheap, flexible labor for one of the world’s best-known companies—magical, educational burger-flipping in the Happiest Place on Earth.

Disney would not respond to these charges or comment on anything else for this piece, despite repeated requests. Like many a corporate titan, Disney likes to give the impression it’s in the education business. Disney University, born in 1955 as the company’s training division, predated McDonald’s Hamburger University, Motorola University, and others, prefiguring what Andrew Ross has called “the quasi-convergence of the academy and the knowledge corporation.” Since 1996, the Disney Institute has charged “millions of attendees representing virtually every sector of business from every corner of the globe” for the privilege of learning about Disney’s “brand of business excellence.” The Disney Career Start Program attracts high school drop-outs and graduates, promising a custom-designed “learning curriculum.” The Disney Dreamers Academy targets 100 high school students each year. Interns are not the only ones on the receiving end of a dubious Disney degree. The company has every demographic, every part of the life cycle, covered.

With some 63,000 people now working on the property, Disney World is the largest single-site employer in the U.S. With the 1978 announcement of the building of EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), the big question for Duncan Dickson and his fellow managers in Disney’s “Casting Department” (Human Resources) was, “Where were we going to get these five to six thousand people?” Dickson and his colleague John Brownley thought of Harry Purchase, head of the Hotel Management Department at Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York. Purchase had been bringing his students to the Magic Kingdom since 1972 to work in food service and take classes off-site. Then in 1978 came a year-round arrangement with the much larger Johnson and Wales College in Rhode Island, which wanted to increase its enrollment. As Dickson remembers, the school proposed that “they would send an instructor down, they would have classes off-site…and the students would work.” Disney agreed.

Interns commonly complain about feeling “mouse-washed”—brainwashed by Disney.

Dickson and Brownley wondered if these initiatives could be magnified. In early 1980, they hosted a three-day meeting in Orlando with a few dozen educators—“department heads of various programs and directors of cooperative education from different universities”—with the goal of setting out “a blueprint for the College Program.” The educators were strongly supportive, stressing only that Disney should handle housing and provide some sort of classroom experience. The senior Disney executive in charge of all the theme parks approved; Disney parks had always employed some number of college students and young people. The College Program would institutionalize this on a massive scale, tapping colleges as recruiters and controlling the entire process. “To build it to any size, we had to have the academic piece,” said Dickson. “Besides scale, the other impetus was to provide a flexible labor force that can adjust to [seasonal] operating fluctuations.”

The Magic Kingdom College Program launched in the summer of 1980, restricted at first to some 200 students from three universities in the southeastern U.S. The immediate plan was to ramp the intake up to 400 interns in spring and summer (then the busiest times in the park) and drop it to 200 interns in the fall. Until 1988, interns lived in the Snow White Village Campground, a mobile home park set amidst the strip malls and discount motels in nearby Kissimmee. The College Program has employed more than 50,000 interns in Florida and California over the thirty years of its existence, and has spawned imitations at the Disney parks in Hong Kong and France.

From the late 1980s through the 1990s, more than 10,000 new hotel rooms were built at Disney World. Interns were rushed in to fill a large number of the new positions, although hotel work had not originally been part of the program. The earlier focus on students majoring in hospitality, theme park management, or culinary arts disappeared as Disney ceased to require or seek out students studying particular majors: now history majors dunk fries in hot oil and psychology majors work as lifeguard interns. The loosening of immigration regulations in the late 1990s prompted the massive recruitment of ICPs (International College Program interns), more than 1,000 of whom now come to work at Disney World each year, under the J-1 “cultural exchange” and H2B “seasonal work” visas.

If Disney’s motives are transparent and readily grasped, more surprising is the passionate support of Disney’s many cheerleaders at colleges and universities. For example, Kent Phillips, Educator Relations and New Market Development Specialist for the internship program, recently received a major award for his good offices from the Cooperative Education and Internship Association.

In a promotional video aimed at students, over a dozen college internship coordinators, career counselors, and professors of experiential education bless the program:

“Disney is not just a place to work—it’s an experience, and it’s an experience you can’t get anywhere else.”

“We tell students that the Disney College Program is for students of all majors, from engineers to business to students in the liberal arts.”

“The best thing…is what it does for the students’ self-esteem.”

“They’ve learned people skills, they’ve learned accountability, they’ve learned how to be creative decision makers.”

“By far the best intern program I’ve seen in the nation.”

More troubling is that so many colleges offer academic credit for what is essentially a summer job devoid of academic content. The thousands of students who do receive academic credit pay their schools for the privilege—a financial windfall for schools.

Purdue and Tulane all have arrangements with Disney, as does Central Michigan University, which charges up to $2,630 in any given semester. If an institution refuses to award credit, Disney will help its interns find a more accommodating college or university. And, in order for its legions of international interns to secure J-1 visas, Disney has also helped forge relationships between American schools and foreign counterparts, such that—to take a single example—Montclair State University can charge thousands of dollars in tuition for a student from Beijing to work for Disney at minimum wage. Educators acknowledge that Disney’s name recognition alone can help break the ice during a job interview.

“We’re not there to flip burgers or to give people food,” a fast-food intern said. “We’re there to create magic.”

According to Dickson, educators who endorse the program are “absolutely” aware that the majority of interns work in fast-food and sit-down restaurants, park cars, clean up after guests, and perform other routine maintenance tasks, which are indistinguishable from the work performed by regular employees. Jerry Montgomery, another member of Disney’s HR team who was involved in managing the program, defended it as helping to manage students’ career expectations. Not everyone in life gets to be “the CFO’s assistant,” says Montgomery, and young people trying to get ahead often need a reality check, someone to “slap them upside the head.” Dickson pointed to “guest contact,” along with the requirement that interns show up on time neatly attired, as educational components.

Disney boasts that eight of the courses are recommended for credit by the American Council on Education. Standard course offerings include “Corporate Communication,” “Experiential Learning,” and “Marketing You.” The “professors” have traditionally been Disney managers, but there is now a dedicated staff of instructors, some with Master’s degrees. Interns commonly complain about feeling “mouse-washed”—brainwashed by Disney. In Mousecatraz, another former intern had this to say of the Disney Practicum, the core course for credit-seeking interns: “All we heard about in the class was how wonderful Lee Cockerell, the Executive Vice President of Walt Disney World Operations, was. It was Lee this, and Lee that and then more Lee. Perhaps Lee should have taught the course because most of the students walked away with the impression that it was all about Lee.” During peak periods, classes may be canceled so students can work longer hours.

As one former intern put it, “Despite taking Disney courses, there was absolutely no connection between my [internship] experience and my academic progress… Folks that just wanted to learn were disappointed.” But those who wanted to network “loved” it. Those who complete a course earn their “Ducktorate.”

The Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” is the ringtone on Ed Chambers’s cell phone and he answers it with a friendly growl: “Big Ed.” His desk is weighed down by a massive Rolodex. He wears a sports jersey to work. Over the past few decades, Chambers has brought an aggressive brand of “Yankee politics” to union-building in Florida. “I’m an organizer—that’s what I do,” says Chambers. “I was the organizer who organized Disney World.”

He is the head of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), Local 1625, and represents 6,000 full-time employees at Disney World. He is one of six major union presidents in the Service Trades Council, whose contracts cover the majority of workers at Disney World, but not interns. For union members, the debate about Disney’s College Program is about more than academic worthiness: it’s about their livelihood. As one worker told me, “We’re trying to make a living, and they’re here to play.” Ironically, unions came to central Florida in part thanks to Disney. When [Roy Disney] broke ground on the Magic Kingdom in 1969, says Chambers, “the building trades came down [from California] and pressured [Roy Disney], so it became union—[Disney World] was built with union construction. They chased him,” he adds with a smile. “[Roy] sat down and said, ‘Fine, you can be union.’” Four decades later, the area covered by Local 1625 now has the highest concentration of union members in Florida. In 1997, Chambers’s union won a battle to organize at the Lakeland Regional Medical Center, setting off a domino effect: “Then we won the LPNs [licensed practical nurses] and the lab techs, then the police went union and the firefighters went union, then the sergeants of the police went union. Then we started picking off nursing homes around here, and the electric company just went union.”

But handling a massive influx of intern labor at Disney has proven to be an unusual challenge. “Unfortunately, Walt would probably be rolling in his grave with some of the things they do,” says Chambers. Back in 1980, the unions made a handshake agreement over the tiny pilot program, understanding that it would relieve full-timers during the year’s busiest periods. But they have been powerless to stop the program’s massive, year-round expansion. “They just went ahead and did it,” says Eric Clinton, a former Disney worker who is now president of UNITE HERE Local 362, another of the six major unions. “This is totally and purely about labor costs…The College Program is almost as good as subcontracting. They’ve found a way to ‘insource’,” given that Disney World itself can’t be moved offshore.

Disney World has never seen a strike before. But union membership has climbed to over 60 percent of the workforce, in response to company attacks on wages and benefits. Still, says Clinton, “There’s a lot of internal organizing that has to go on. Disney will only take us seriously when we have 75 percent membership.”

In a world of competitive, often unpaid internship programs, Disney’s is easy to get—and at least it’s paid.

Chambers and Clinton agree, as do many Disney-watchers, that the company changed in the decades after Michael Eisner became CEO in 1984. Free family healthcare disappeared, along with the defined benefit pension plan for new employees. The pension plan for older employees may soon be gone as well, replaced by nonmatching 401K plans to which few of these low-paid hourly employees can afford to contribute. The unions were also powerless to stop the imposition of a new two-tier wage system, which has meant much lower pay raises for all new workers. After five years at Disney World, a typical worker would now be lucky to make $9 an hour, and even twenty-year veterans are likely to have their salaries “top out” below $13 an hour.

According to a report by economists Bruce Nissen, Eric Schutz, and Yue Zhang, Disney’s move to a two-tier wage structure saved the company close to $20 million in 2006. The economists estimated that, as a result, $23.4 million was lost in goods and services in Orange and Osceola counties in that year, bringing about further ripple effects: job losses, depressed wages, lower tax receipts for local governments. Between wage squeezes, benefit cuts, and the broad casualization of the Disney World workforce, the company has clearly saved itself hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, if not more. With Disney the largest employer in the region, these changes do significant damage to the local economy.

There is also the issue of safety. According to one long-time employee, the Animal Kingdom’s “Asia” attraction had approximately sixty-five full-time employees and just under thirty interns before the most recent recession. Since then, with a virtual hiring freeze on full-timers, the number of interns shot up to almost equal the number of full-timers. “It’s a revolving door,” he commented, and both the visitors’ experience and the running of the theme park suffer as result.

In a single hour, running at full throttle, the full-time staff can put some 2,000 visitors through a major ride like the Mount Everest Rollercoaster, but “when you get a whole bunch of new folks, those numbers plummet, and the managers ride us, saying we’ve got to work on our OHRC, our Operational Hourly Ride Capacity…Collective lack of experience on the ride systems is kind of scary.” If this hasn’t actually put visitors in danger yet, it has certainly translated into longer wait times for rides.

In the beginning, Dickson and his HR team had to convince executives that the internship program would bring serious savings in labor costs: “We fought that battle all the way up to the Chief Financial Officer.” No one questions it any longer. In Dickson’s words, anyone who “looked at having to replace the College Program employees with full-time employees” would realize that the savings from having interns instead are “substantial.” Who could doubt that this perpetual minimum wage machine would bring big returns? Besides having no benefits and being a captive audience for Disney paraphernalia, Disney rent, and Disney food, the interns never get genuine raises. Any changes in salary have closely followed adjustments in the minimum wage. In the meantime, the price of admission to Disney World has risen over 100 percent since 1990, around when the College Program started to take off.

With interns guaranteed at least thirty hours per week, and many working closer to forty, it is universally acknowledged that the interns are taking what would otherwise be full-time jobs. Departing or fired full-timers are often replaced with one or more interns, according to many people I interviewed.

“They’ve done it through attrition,” says Clinton. A small recruiting project, supposedly intended to relieve workers during peak periods, has turned into a monster. One overcast night I slipped into Vista Way, home to a thousand Disney interns. I half expected I would have to scale over fences or dart past the intimidating security gate, where interns are required to show their name tags every time they enter. As I approached, a caravan of American Coach buses was discharging a slew of exhausted interns. Following an intern’s friendly nod, I quickly made my way inside. The buses are an endless source of grief for the interns, I learned later. They don’t run all the time, often leaving interns assigned to the earliest or latest shifts stranded. The few interns who bring their own cars become gods among men. Interns violating any of a long list of rules can be forced to leave the property within twenty-four hours. Regular searches of cars and rooms are conducted, with a policy of collective responsibility often applying: groups of interns can be “terminated” for the infraction of a single roommate.

Within walking distance there’s only a Wendy’s, a Chevron gas station, a 7-Eleven, and a Walgreens (with a liquor store annex). The place has been mythologized as “Vista Lay” and received honors from Playboy as home of the world’s sexiest internship—but the reality is less glamorous. I saw interns doing laundry, sharing cigarettes, shooting hoops, recovering from their shift and getting ready for the next one. The grounds are filled with nondescript stucco apartment buildings in white and red. Most interns live four or six to an apartment, two to bedroom, all sharing a kitchen. Interstate 4 roars behind the complex. There’s a “clubhouse” used for College Program events, with massive, painted mouse ears emblazoned at the entrance. The apartment blocks surround tired-looking lawns, a basketball court, large sumps filled with brackish water. Any bustle in the complex is around a fitness center and the hot tub. Who are the interns and how did they get here?

“I had the [Disney College Program] on my radar since I was about ten years old,” one of them told me. “I even went to a recruiting presentation at a nearby college while in middle school.” Others said they’d been “Disney kids” as long as they could remember: just being able to inhale a little of the pixie dust was enough for them. Many simply had dropped by a recruiting presentation on their college campus and decided to give it a shot.

In a world of competitive, often unpaid internship programs, Disney’s is easy to get—and at least it’s paid. “Candidates rarely inquire about the dirty details such as the long hours, low pay, and tight living conditions,” Wesley Jones wrote in Mousecatraz.

“I would wager a 20-30 percent termination/dropout rate just based on my own observations,” Kyle told me, adding that he had enjoyed the program.

On the other hand, Disney isn’t hiding anything. It provides detailed and basically accurate information about the program. At a campus recruiting event that I attended, there were three featured presentations with upbeat orchestral jingles and inspiring testimony, from clean-cut, attractive young people. The conference room was strewn with glitter, along with Mickey Mouse stickers and photo-heavy brochures. The cheery recruiter cajoled a distracted student audience into his call and response shtick: “Help me help—” “You!” In one of the promotional videos, we hear from Stephanie (the perky blonde with a nauseating smile) and Tenoccus (the sensitive, soft-spoken African-American male): “We’re here to tell you about what we think is the coolest paid internship in the entertainment business.” Disney is “the place where dreams come true” and “every morning is a magical morning.” Disney internship applicants list their work preferences, but they don’t receive their assignments until they arrive.

As one intern wrote on a message board: “You have virtually no say in your hours or work location.” Interns often have no regular schedule—they are expected to take whatever shifts are left over and to work at multiple locations. During his internship, Wesley Jones reported to five different supervisors.

Bureaucratic snafus, overbooking, and health problems can all prevent interns from getting their guaranteed thirty hours of work per week, which can cause them financial problems. A shop steward sees interns struggling to make ends meet all the time and provides free food to tide them over. “She didn’t work her thirty hours because they switched her schedule,” the steward said of a new merchandising intern. “She’s pushed into three different jobs. For one of them they had hired too many people, so they had to transfer thirteen people out…So on this paycheck she got two dollars, after they took out the rent.” The steward has seen a number of interns leave the program early because “they’re not making any money, they can’t make their bills,” and schedulers avoid giving them overtime.

Unless you consistently work long shifts for a number of months, many interns told me, almost all of your earnings will go towards rent and basic expenses. Parental support is common. “I needed my parents to wire me money just to make it through the first two months,” said one former intern.

Like workers without rights everywhere, the interns vote with their feet. There are no official statistics on dropout or termination rates, but they appear to be uncommonly high. “I would wager a 20-30 percent termination/dropout rate just based on my own observations,” Kyle told me, adding that he had enjoyed the program. During his first internship, four of his five roommates left. Clearly, some of the attrition has to do with college kids being college kids, but there are also many who hightail it home after they see the actual work. “I didn’t travel clear across the country to work in a store,” said one such intern. “I was cast as a Custodial Host, but I wasn’t going to spend my hot summer days cleaning up people’s crap,” said another.

If few of these problems seem visible in the smiling faces of housekeeping and fast food interns, you can thank the Disney Look. A College Program recruiter calls it a “clean, classic, timeless look, [that] goes back to Walt Disney himself,” where “timeless” apparently means 1950s suburban America. An extensive literature covers the regulations for hair: short for men, long for women, and “extremes in dying, bleaching, or coloring” are not permitted. Mustaches are permitted under certain conditions, as well as sideburns that extend to the bottom of the earlobe but no further. The frames and lenses of eyeglasses must be “neutral” in color, any makeup should be “applied in a blended manner and in colors complementary to the skin tone,” and so on. “Intentional body alteration or modification” (visible tattoos, piercings etc.) is out, except for “traditional ear piercing for women.” Good “stage presence” means no chewing gum, no smoking on the job, no sleepiness, no moodiness, and no eating or drinking. Along with the Disney Look, there is Disneyspeak. Customers are “guests,” positions are “roles,” and a crowd is “an audience.” Vomit is a “protein spill.”

Nonetheless, many interns love their experience. Free access to the parks and employee discounts are more than enough for some of these Disney kids who have grown up to be Disney interns and may yet become Disney parents. “I’m a Disney slave and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” tweeted one intern proudly.

Walt Disney’s original vision for EPCOT was a modernist utopia in the Florida swamps, half Le Corbusier and half Fordlandia, “a planned, controlled community, a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities.” But the reality is just another theme park, albeit one employing an abundance of slogans about progress and national stereotypes. Wesley Jones jokes in Mousecatraz that the Disney College Program might justifiably be called “the Experimental Prototype ‘ College’ of Tomorrow.” One of the world’s largest internship programs—touted as a massive and wondrous experiment in experiential education—is a minimum-wage, corporate paradise, endorsed by schools and accepted by students, as much a mirage as the original EPCOT.

Correction: The article above originally suggested that Walt Disney himself oversaw the construction of Disney World and gave permission for the theme park to unionize. Walt Disney died in 1966; Walt’s brother Roy supervised the construction of the park, which opened to the public on October 1, 1971.

Ross Perlin

Ross Perlin is a writer and linguist in Brooklyn, New York. His book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy was published by Verso. He currently serves as Assistant Director of the non-profit Endangered Language Alliance.

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