Participating students have been advised that this semester’s College Program at Walt Disney World is ending. In addition to their internship being over, these Cast Members have been notified that their housing complexes will be closing, and they will need to depart by March 18 at 11 a.m.
This news comes after Walt Disney World announced the theme parks will be closed due to coronavirus through at least the remainder of March 2020. Although it’s probably obvious, the COVID-19 pandemic is the impetus for the abrupt decision to prematurely end this round of the College Program.
In addition to the College Program (CP), this applies termination to Culinary Program, Cultural Exchange Program, Academic Exchange Program, and some international cast members. In this post, we’ll share details of the announcement and offer commentary about the larger implications for Walt Disney World…
Let’s start with the “Important Program Update” that was sent to impacted Cast Members:
As the update indicates, College Program and other impacted participants will be paid through the end of March 2020, and will no longer be charged for their housing. Program participants will also be given a successful program completion, which should help when pursuing future roles with the Walt Disney Company.
This move mirrors the scene at numerous dorms around the country. Over 200 colleges and universities across the United States have temporarily closed in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. In many cases, students were initially advised that they’d be allowed to remain in student housing, only to have schools backtrack, advising them to vacate immediately.
For those unfamiliar with it, the College Program is a semester-long paid internship offered by Walt Disney World. Students work part-time all around the parks and resorts, while taking classes and living in Disney housing. If you’ve attended college in the last decade-plus, you’ve probably encountered Disney recruiters for the CP.
It’s unclear how much of Walt Disney World’s workforce the College Program (and other impacted programs) constitute. Some older estimates put it around 5-10%, but the CP has proliferated in recent years. We find it very hard to believe that the College Program makes up 10% or less of frontline Cast Members. Anecdotally, double or even triple that seems more likely to us.
Depending upon who you ask, the College Program can be controversial or the greatest thing ever. Reviews of the experience are all over the place, varying dramatically based upon the position each student was assigned and whether they’re hardcore Disney fans or simply looking for a strong internship opportunity with a respected corporation.
Beyond that, there’s skepticism about Walt Disney World’s motivation for using the College Program as cheap labor that sidesteps unions, charging above-market rates for housing, among several other criticisms. (All of those are well beyond the scope of this post, but do provide some context for our commentary below.)
In fairness, many students report memorable, life-defining experiences during the College Program and use it as a stepping-stone for careers with the company. (Even without a rose-colored perspective on the CP, I still kind of wish I would’ve done it.)
At present, the next round of the College Program is still scheduled to begin in May. Stated differently, the next College Program is not scheduled to begin until May. That means Walt Disney World is terminating a large amount of its labor force without replacement until at least May 2020.
One of our first thoughts upon hearing this news is it reiterates that Walt Disney World is not realistically expecting to reopen the parks on April 1, 2020. This is something we’ve been stressing since it was first announced that WDW would be closing. That’s simply the timeframe for reevaluating the pandemic status.
It’s more palatable to the public to suggest a 2 week ‘pause’ on large gatherings and events. From Walt Disney World’s perspective, an incremental closure done in rolling phases is also easier to implement and navigate than a longer one announced all at once–as it stands, the phone lines have been overwhelmed since the announcement.
This would be an overly optimistic timeline even with a lot of best case assumptions about social distancing like what has been done in Asia. As we’ve pointed out previously, American individualism runs counter to a lot of that. This is borne out by photos of crowded restaurants, bars, events, and theme parks this weekend. If our collective behavior doesn’t become more disciplined, this could last longer and have worse consequences.
Even in Japan, Hong Kong, and China–countries where there has been greater diligence in self-isolation and social distancing, the parks have not been closed for only 2 weeks. Similar to Walt Disney World and Disneyland, Tokyo Disney Resort originally announced a 2 week closure. That was subsequently extended for at least another 2 weeks, despite Japan doing a fairly good job with containment.
As stated in our Walt Disney World Closure FAQ: Refund, Cancellation, Delay & Extensions, we think the best case scenario is Walt Disney World reopening at some point in mid to late April 2020. If we had a trip planned in or before May 2020, we would begin processing the very real possibility that it might not occur.
We would absolutely love to be wrong on this, and retain a sliver of hope that Walt Disney World will reopen on April 1, 2020. (Mostly because that means current measures will have proven successful in containing coronavirus, and things will have not gotten worse.)
Finally, if you or a College Program participant you know is in need of immediate assistance, there are some options. U-Haul is offering college students 30 days of free storage. Enterprise wants to make it easier for students to get home to their families by reducing the age minimum and waiving the young renter fees for rentals through May 31, 2020. Finally, Frontier Airlines is letting students fly free to select destinations.
Beyond that, Representative Anna Eskamani (who represents Central Florida House District 47) offered support and assistance via Twitter: “If you are one of these students who has no way to get home please contact our office so we can find ways to help: firstname.lastname@example.org.” Other local organizations, such as Mosaic at WDW are also providing support with packing, transportation, temporary housing, etc.
Ultimately, this was incredibly sad news for many students who just began their College Programs. There are numerous heartbreaking reports going around on social media of students gathered around phones reading this news while in the parks yesterday, tears being shed all around backstage, and CPs being advised to go home early during the middle of shifts.
No matter how this news is framed, it has a deep emotional toll and devastating consequences for these program participants and their families. Those who were impacted by the sudden termination of these programs are in our thoughts, and have our sympathies. We’ll end with another reminder that is going to be a trying time for a lot of people in a lot of ways, and a little kindness goes a long way.
Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!
What do you think of the College Program ending this semester early and closing CP housing? Think it’s a smart move or too harsh? Any other thoughts on the CP? What this could mean for Walt Disney World’s reopening date? Do you agree or disagree with our commentary? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!