Cultural Representatives Return to Disney World

Walt Disney World has announced that the International Programs will soon bring back the Cultural Representatives, about one year after the College Program resumed. This post shares dates, details, and commentary on what the return of Cultural Reps means for Epcot. (Updated August 2, 2022.)

As you might recall, the Cultural Representative program was suspended shortly after the closure of the theme parks along with the College Program and Walt Disney World’s other internship programs. Those students returned to their home states or, in the case of the International Programs, their home countries.

With few notable exceptions, Cultural Representatives staff their respective World Showcase pavilions, offering an added layer of authenticity to the experience. We absolutely love chatting with the Cast Members in World Showcase–everyone we’ve encountered has eagerly educated us about their home cities or countries, and offered opinions on working in the United States. They’re great informal ambassadors and they have been missed since Epcot reopened.

Shortly before the reopening of the parks, Walt Disney World and Unite Here Local 362 actually had to reach a formal understanding concerning how Cast Members would be staffed in World Showcase. The agreement between Walt Disney World and the union allowed for World Showcase Cast Members who “do not meet culturally authentic theming” to be temporarily assigned to work in positions otherwise reserved for Cultural Representatives until Disney is able to reasonably resume normal staffing.

This agreement was borne of necessity, as Walt Disney World’s hands in bringing back the International Programs were largely tied until border reopenings could occur. More recently, that has been less of an impediment (with some exceptions), but the immigration system has been plagued with a backlog of student and work visas.

August 2, 2022 Update: Walt Disney World has shared via various social media accounts that that the first Cast Members in the returning Cultural Representative Program have finally arrived at Walt Disney World. The new Cultural Representatives have begun checking in to their new homes at Flamingo Crossing Village.

Disney Programs shared these photos, as well as the following message, on Twitter: “Yesterday we welcomed the first group of Cultural Representatives to return!  This means all Disney Programs at Walt Disney World are back! We are so excited and can’t wait to welcome back more participants in the coming weeks!

It’ll likely take the Cultural Representative and other International Programs participants time to arrive, get settled, and train before their impact is felt directly in World Showcase and indirectly throughout other locations at Walt Disney World. Last year, it took about a month or two after the College Program’s return before its “fruits” were visible in the parks (and at restaurants, in particular).

Our expectation is something similar here. That likely explains why Walt Disney World has announced more restaurant and meal services returning in late September, rather than the near-term. It’ll be interesting to see what other locations join that list by the start of the new fiscal year.

The Disney International Programs encompass the Academic Exchange Program, Cultural Exchange Program, and Cultural Representative Program. Eligibility requirements vary for each, but all require that applicants be able to speak fluent English and be at least 18 years of age at the time of application submission.

The Cultural Exchange Program lists countries and regions where Disney is currently recruiting:

  • Australia
  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • Hong Kong
  • India
  • France
  • Mexico
  • New Zealand
  • Peru
  • Singapore
  • Thailand
  • Turkey
  • United Kingdom

The Cultural Representative Program list would normally be more narrow, limited to countries or regions that inspired resorts, theme park areas, and pavilions. It doesn’t currently list specific countries, but it is notable that Japan and Morocco are not on the more expansive list–suggesting those Cultural Representative Programs have not yet resumed. (Separately, there are applications open for Norway, Germany, and Australia/New Zealand.)

It’s probably obvious once you stop to think about it, but like so much of the Walt Disney World “machine,” many fans likely don’t give much thought to how the International Programs work. (I know there’s a ton I don’t know and have never questioned–so much simply works so well that you don’t scrutinize its inner workings until it “breaks,” for lack of a better term.) For many fans, the Cultural Representatives at Epcot were probably one such thing.

Even the backstory behind the Cultural Representative program, and Walt Disney World’s determination to create an entirely new category of non-immigrant visa is fascinating. This effort began in the early 1980s and culminated in the Immigration Act of 1990 codifying EPCOT Center’s unique Fellowship Program via the Q-1 visa.

The Q visa is designed for participants of “an international cultural exchange program…for the purpose of providing practical training, employment, and the sharing of the history, culture, and traditions of the country of the alien‘s nationality and who will be employed under the same wages and working conditions as domestic workers.”

The Q-1 visa is better known as the “Disney visa” (not to be confused with the Disney Visa by Chase) and was dubbed that as a result of the company’s lobbying efforts to bring it to fruition. In a normal year, there are a few thousand Q-1 visas issued, the majority of which are by the Walt Disney Company. Many others are used by the third party operating participants that run the other World Showcase pavilions.

Not all positions in World Showcase qualify for this visa. (It’s my understanding that Frozen Ever After is one such exception; I’m not sure about Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure–perhaps keeping the film in French was partly motivated by skirting this issue? We’ll find out in a few months.) Regardless, this is tangential to the topic at hand–I just found it fascinating. For a deeper dive on Q visas, see Kit Johnson, The Wonderful World of Disney Visas, 63 Fla. L. Rev. 915 (2011).

Against that real world backdrop comes this announcement from Disney Programs, which just shared the exciting news about the return of the Disney Cultural Representative Program at Walt Disney World Resort in August 2022!

Here’s the official announcement on the return of Cultural Representatives at Epcot that was made back in March. Following that is our commentary about the significance of the Disney International Programs’ return.

DISNEY CULTURAL REPRESENTATIVE PROGRAM OFFICIAL ANNOUNCEMENT

Since the reopening of Walt Disney World, we’ve frequently been asked when Disney International Programs will bring back the Disney Cultural Representatives. We’re thrilled to announce the Disney Cultural Representative program will return in phases and begin welcoming the first new participants in August.

The Cultural Representatives play an important role in our storytelling by helping us create authentic, immersive experiences for our guests as they share their countries’ culture, heritage and traditions that have inspired our resorts, pavilions, and theme parks.

We know how much our guests and cast love the program and have been waiting for just the right moment to reintroduce it. As we continue to bring back more cast and guest experiences, we are encouraged by the progress we’re seeing in recent health trends, including the return of international travel and the expansion of vaccine availability around the world.

Right now, we are reaching out to participants from select countries whose program was shortened, cancelled or waitlisted in 2020, as well as those who had an offer and had not yet arrived, and offering them the first opportunity to reapply. We will then invite others to apply soon.

We are doing this in a thoughtful and responsible way with the safety of our participants and working cast top of mind. With this phased re-introduction, initial recruitment will start in Germany, Norway, Italy, France, UK, and Canada for World Showcase at EPCOT. We look forward to bringing additional countries on board and sharing applications with them once they clear travel restrictions and / or have CDC-authorized vaccine availability.

We’re building on the solid foundation of last year’s relaunch of the Disney College Program. Both programs provide a great pathway for career development as they offer participants the opportunity to learn, grow and develop and as they stay at Flamingo Crossings Village, a new state-of-the-art housing complex.

We’re eagerly counting down the days until we welcome back our Cultural Representatives and will continue to keep you updated as more countries join us to share their magic in our parks and resorts.

Our Commentary

This is unequivocally good news. For much of the last two years, World Showcase has felt lifeless. A number of entertainment acts have returned since the start of the 50th Anniversary last October, which was a big boost in giving the pavilions much energy. Still, World Showcase lacked the je ne sais quoi and lived-in quality that the Cultural Representatives gave to each host country.

We enjoy the serene atmosphere of World Showcase at night after the crowds have cleared out, but not so much during the middle of the day. Without the Cast Members and all of the live performers that previously inhabited the pavilions, World Showcase has lacked its normal sense of conviviality. The return of the Cultural Representatives should resolve that once and for all.

Beyond that, most of our analysis revolves around the labor shortage in Central Florida that you’ve probably already read about dozens of times on this site already. Walt Disney World has been attempting to address this for months, holding job fairs at Coronado Springs, and offering hiring bonuses and higher pay for certain roles.

The bonuses started small, and have gradually increased over time. Certain positions recently doubled their hiring bonuses to $3,000. There are also a few positions offering $6,000 hiring bonuses in the form of an additional $3,000 lump sum payment for eligible new hires residing 50 miles or more outside the Walt Disney World Resort area. Walt Disney World is also offering $500 to $1000 referral bonuses to existing Cast Members who recruit new employees.

I’m not sure that’s of the same relevance when it comes to the return of the Cultural Representative Program. At this point, staffing shortages are not as widespread or across the board, instead revolving around specific positions–like housekeepers, cooks, bus drivers, call center phone staff, and more.

The causes of those labor shortages are multifaceted (see the analysis in our housekeeper shortage post). Ironically, immigration and work visas play a large role, but not the Q-1 visa. This will likely have little impact on any of that.

Personally, we’re very excited to see the Disney Cultural Representative Program begin resuming at Epcot in August 2022. While it won’t encompass all countries in World Showcase or Animal Kingdom Lodge at that point, it’s still a strong start. Unlike the College Program, I don’t think I’ve ever heard any (valid) criticism of the International Programs. This is an unequivocal positive that’s great for guests, the authenticity of Epcot, and the people who participate.

Like the College Program, the Cultural Representative Program also has been an excellent gateway into the company for those who are passionate about Disney and its founder’s ideals, or the United States. We know a few people who leveraged an opportunity with the Cultural Representative Program to advance with the company (or its international counterparts) and most had positive experiences with it.

Finally, Walt Disney World also benefits here because the new development in the Flamingo Crossings area to the west of Walt Disney World property had an estimate cost of $100 million ($600 million for all phases), and was slated to be used by the various Disney Programs a couple of years ago. That didn’t happen right on schedule, for reasons that should be obvious.

While the buildings have been offered for rent to Cast Members since, they’re dramatically under-utilized. The various Disney Programs returning or scaling up should fix that problem for the company. It’ll also mean participants have significantly nicer accommodations than in the past, especially now that Walt Disney World has retired and sold the Vista Way apartment complex (for a cool $90 million!).

All in all, the return of the Cultural Representative Program to Walt Disney World starting in August 2022 is great news for everyone–current Cast Members, guests, and people from abroad wanting to do a stint working at Walt Disney World. It might even help facilitate the reopening of a couple additional restaurants (Monsieur Paul and Takumi Tei???), while also bringing fresh faces to Walt Disney World who are eager and excited to work for the company. Great news all around!

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YOUR THOUGHTS

What do you think of the Disney Cultural Representative Program? Excited that it’s resuming at Epcot in August 2022? Do you know anyone who has participated in one of the International Programs? Have you done one? 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!

19 Responses to “Cultural Representatives Return to Disney World”
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