Meg Lambert – Orlando, FL

Many college seniors dread the following frequently asked question: “What are you going to do after graduation?” My answer was supposed to be graduate school, to work towards my goal of becoming a writing professor. But I was feeling burned out on school, and as the application deadlines for my choice graduate schools approached, I suddenly found myself choosing to apply for something completely different: the Disney College Program.

The Disney College Program is an internship that allows students to work in Disney theme parks in various roles, such as attractions, food and beverage, or custodial work. While considered a college internship, students only need to be enrolled in college to apply, though taking classes for college credit is optional, so many applicants are college seniors about to graduate and looking to get their foot in the door with the company.

Once I realized I could participate in the Disney College Program after graduation, I knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime. I still wanted to go to grad school eventually, but hoped that a gap year would reenergize my desire to research and write. So, instead of moving home after graduation like many of my friends, I took a risk and packed up my belongings to move to Orlando, Florida, and work at the most magical place on earth.

Taking that risk was one of the best decisions of my life. I had hoped the Disney College Program would be an extension of my college experience as I wasn’t quite ready to grow up, and I figured Walt Disney World was as close to Neverland as I could get. Instead, I found a happy medium: moving so far way from home helped me mature and become more autonomous, but the growing up process was taking place in a world-renowned theme park.

I never thought “operating heavy machinery” would be my response to those who inquired into my postgrad plans, but that’s part of the job description when you work at Space Mountain. When I discovered I would be working at one of my favorite rides, I was ecstatic. The first day of training was not only an introduction to the operation of the ride, but also involved the unique experience of riding with the lights on. I couldn’t believe I was being paid to ride Space Mountain, especially in a way few get to experience.

When my shift was over and I clocked out, I could meet up with my new friends and explore the parks as a guest. I was in awe of my new life, realizing that people spend years planning and saving to experience the world I was living in.

Not every day was magical, of course. Every job had its challenges and frustrations. One of the hardest parts of working for an industry that operates 365 days a year is working long hours, weekends and holidays. Spending Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s working 13-hour shifts instead of celebrating with my family was difficult, but we developed our own celebrations as a work family: bringing dishes for a Thanksgiving pot luck, making holiday decorations for the break room and ringing in the New Year together inside the Mountain.

We made the best of our late-night shifts by going to the pool before work started, then going out to eat together at iHop when we got off at 4 a.m. The Disney College Program was one of the best years of my life. I loved the job, the people I worked with and the perks of being a cast member.

Even though participating in the Disney College Program was supposed to be a temporary hiatus from entering the real world, it turned into baby steps toward my future when I was accepted into the Rhetoric & Composition Master’s program at University of Central Florida –  I got to continue my career path while staying with the Walt Disney company. Before my college program ended, I had the opportunity to continue working at Space Mountain on my own schedule.

The requirements for seasonal status are to submit availability quarterly and to work a minimum of 150 hours a year  to remain a Disney cast member. This flexible job was perfect for grad school – I could pick up shifts to work at the beginning of the semester before things got too crazy, and then shift my full focus to graduate school as projects and papers started to pile up.

Not only was I able to make a little extra money, but I could still get into the parks for free. Graduate school was a really difficult and trying experience, but in my limited free time, I was still able to enjoy the Disney magic I had fallen in love with. Whenever my workload started to feel too stressful, I would allow myself an hour or two of downtime to visit a park, get on my favorite rides and take a picture with a character or two. If I was going to struggle through grad school, this was the best place to do it.

I now have my Master’s degree and am living my dream working as a visiting instructor for the Department of Writing & Rhetoric at UCF, while still picking up shifts at Space Mountain and taking advantage of the theme parks located in my backyard. Like most 20-somethings, I still get stressed, confused and question my life direction;  but I’m grateful I took a chance and followed an impulse that turned into a future.

Every postgrad has to find their own way after college. The journey is often challenging, but it’s an experience that shapes who you are and who you will be. I was lucky to stumble  onto such a unique path that has made my version of the “real world” a magical one.