Christie Oneill never thought the phrase ‘I’m going to Disney World’ would be a part of her college education at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. But, this year, the 20-year-old English major from Perth-Andover, New Brunswick, became the first UMPI students in several years to participate in the Disney College Program.
Oneill applied for the program after COVID stopped her plans to participate in an exchange program to Belgium right out of high school: “I always felt a loss about not being able to do that exchange. So, about a year ago, when I saw the Disney College Program in a friend’s post, I immediately applied.”
After three rounds of interviews, she received a phone call last February. If she could get a visa and university help, she would be accepted into the program based in Florida and could pick out her dates. With help from UMPI academic professional advisor Jessica Winslow, she was able to work out all the arrangements and ultimately decided on Aug. 15, 2022, to Jan. 19, 2023.
“In August, when I crossed the border, I was so worried they might send me back,” Oneill said of her travel jitters. “I had the same feeling when I got on the plane. And then the same feeling when I arrived at Flamingo Crossing Village in Winter Garden, Florida.”
That’s where Oneill lived with about 10,000 other Disney program participants. Her fully furnished apartment, which she shared with three roommates, was part of a sprawling complex that included a community center with a gym, mail room, movie room, study rooms, snack shop, and two pools, along with the offices where their Disney College Program advisors worked. From the community center balcony, she said, residents could watch the Epcot fireworks.
“They decorate for holidays, and make you feel that sense of home even though you’re away from home. It was the little touches, like how the Disney Program employees bring by snacks and ask how you’re doing,” she said.
But Oneill didn’t have much time to take it all in. She said she was the busiest she’s ever been in her life, with her work at Disney, UMPI classes, and classes she was able to take through Disney University (like a business class taught by Chef Art Smith, chef to the Obamas and Oprah, who had cooked for Princess Diana). There were also events at Flamingo Crossing Village—like the big event they do every week to welcome in new participants—and excursions to Orlando. She was able to see the Nutcracker ballet and go to Gatorland, a zoo where they work with rescue animals.
Oneill worked at the Magic Kingdom. The plan was for her to be on the custodial team, but she twisted her ankle just before she left for Florida and failed the physical when she arrived. Given the option to park strollers, seat guests at the park’s busiest restaurants, or work at Storybook Circus, she chose the latter, part of the Merchandise Department. The job entailed wearing a chef’s hat and apron, making cotton candy and caramel popcorn, stocking shelves, working the register, and playing games with children. A special component of the program is that you can trade shifts with others as long as it’s within the same department, and Oneill was quick to take advantage of that opportunity. She did shifts at Epcot, the Animal Kingdom, Disney Springs, and worked her way around the Magic Kingdom.
Because she was an English major completing a Business internship through UMPI, her leaders at Disney gave her opportunities to focus on her major and internship. For example, she was offered the chance to complete a project with about 25 other college participants making short commercials encouraging safety and promptness for the employees in their department and those commercials ended up on screens in their work locations.
Another benefit of the program is that participants can visit any of the parks as guests for free: “When I would go in as a guest and see college students work, my perception really changed. I would ask how they were doing, and they always had a story to tell. It’s always so interesting to hear them. Now I know how some of the rides work and what happens behind the scenes with shows. It’s so weird knowing the inside of the business as much as I do.”
Two other UMPI students are attending the Disney College Program this year. One is there now and the other will be heading to Orlando in April; both are graduates of Fort Fairfield High School and have been talking about participating in this experience since they were freshmen. O’Neill hopes these two students have experiences that are just as amazing as hers was.
“I am extremely grateful to UMPI for helping send me here,” she said. “I’m not a Business major so had to figure things out. I’m grateful for the Disney leaders and feel so fortunate and lucky I was able to be in the program. It’s given me a lot of educational and work experience. And some of the benefit has been the networking and figuring out where I want to be. I’m starting to figure it out because I’ve talked with so many people.”
While she was in the Disney program, she would wear her UMPI sweatshirt as much as possible and, one day, she bumped into a student from the University of Maine in Orono. Soon after, she met another student from Maine and it ended up being Jessica Winslow’s niece from Easton. They’d been looking for each other the whole time. Turns out, it really is a small world, after all.