If you're Devin Melendy, you've got a shiny new degree in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts and a choice to make: look for a job in the real world or spend the next five months in Disney World, working for Mickey Mouse. What did she do? What would you do?
No surprise, Devin took door number 2, and landed on a sweltering day in Orlando to begin her new life in Frontierland, as part of the Disney College Program. Between hoe-downs and splash-downs, there were parade crowds to control, pin traders to appease, and sheriffs of the day to appoint.
For some, the college program is more misery than magic, but Devin never lost her patience or her pixie dust. She loved her work, got along with her roommates, and left Disney with a greater appreciation of the theme parks and the company.
Devin's diary of her college program experience will reaffirm your faith that Disney cast members really do feel blessed to work in the most magical place on earth.
If you've ever wondered what it would be like not just to visit a Disney theme park but to work in one, the "Earning Your Ears" series is your E-ticket!
Introduction: The Internship Where Dreams Come True
Chapter 1: The Way to Get Started
Chapter 2: Welcome to Florida
Chapter 3: The Magic of Traditions
Chapter 4: The Sheriff of the Day
Chapter 5: The Politics of Pin Trading
Chapter 6: Animal Behavior
Chapter 7: A Night of Frolic
Chapter 8: Celebration with Character
Chapter 9: History and Hurricanes
Chapter 10: Tricks and Treats
Chapter 11: The Do’s and Don’ts of Disney
Chapter 12: Familiar Faces
Chapter 13: The Age of Chivalry, Magic, and Make-Believe
Chapter 14: Ghoulish Delights
Chapter 15: The Winter Formal
Chapter 16: Birthdays
Chapter 17: It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Chapter 18: Decisions
Chapter 19: Goodbye Disney
Chapter 20: The Open Road
Chapter 21: Happily Ever After
“Magic. Experience. Paid Internship.”
I remember reading those words so clearly. It was my second semester at the University of Massachusetts. I was nineteen—an eager freshman. Eager to keep my grades up, to add to my resume, to prove myself. To be the best, and to be unique.
Everyone wants to be unique at nineteen. We’re still figuring out who we are. That restlessness fuels us forward to new and unexpected things.
I was taking my favorite shortcut on my way to class. The campus center concourse, my cut-through of choice, is a busy place. There’s always lots of activity, and yet, a tiny purple flyer caught my eye.
It was the Mickey ears that did it. I paused, wondering why Mickey Mouse was anywhere near a college campus. I was of the age where liking Disney wasn’t “cool.” People watched the movies on a rainy day, but that was it. Still, my curiosity got the better of me.
An older girl had just finished stapling the flyer to the bulletin board. There was a stack of them on the table next to her—pretty, purple, and just waiting to be handed out. She turned and smiled at me.
“Interested in the Disney College Program?”
“Um, I guess,” I said lamely. I didn’t want to admit I had no idea what the phrase “Disney College Program” meant.
“Come to the info session,” she told me, pressing the flyer into my hands. “There’s a few of us who’ve done the program; we can explain everything.”
I studied the flyer on my walk home. Truth be told, the lack of information and the girl’s enthusiasm made me wonder if it was some kind of cult. Was there a kind of Disney University? Classes for knowing all the words to “Once Upon a Dream”?
But my curiosity was piqued. I needed something on my resume. Something that would make potential employers do a double take. Something that would make me stand out from the other six thousand students in my class.
I needed to be more than just a number.
I watched Disney movies like any other kid. We had so many of them on video, but Aladdin won out as my favorite. It always moved me, even as a child, to see him struggle to find out who he was, and to determine his self-worth. It was no coincidence that I was facing a similar struggle as a college student.
The Disney College Program was one of my many research projects. I had my eye on studying abroad, joining the student government, and volunteering. It was just a matter of finding which one interested me the most.
I went to the info session as the girl suggested. I listened to the presentations and testimonials. I asked questions. Then I thought about it for a long time.
What would it be like to work for Disney?
Would that make me stand out in the crowd?
Could it be as magical as they claimed?
I was sold fifteen minutes into the presentation. Excited, I took a fresh flyer for my dorm room wall, then made a timeline of the next three years. First on the list was the Disney College Program. Everything else would come after.
I remember racing back to my room. My roommate at the time was working on her homework. I instantly launched into what I had learned that afternoon.
“You work at Disney World!” I exclaimed. “I haven’t been to Disney since I was fourteen. This could be so much fun!”
My roommate and I grew up differently. Her mother was a strict opponent of Disney movies for their “anti-feminist” messages. Thus, she shared the same low opinion of it.
“How can they be anti-feminist?” I asked, confused. “The main characters are usually women.”
“All they want in the end is a prince,” she insisted. “It’s ridiculous.”
Crestfallen, I put the flyer away. We didn’t discuss it again.
I didn’t think Disney movies were anti-feminist at all. Though the early ones were reflective of their time, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Merida were invested in their freedoms, dreams, and goals. It was a huge generalization to say every female character on screen was looking for love.
I talked about it with other friends, but her stinging dismissal of the program temporarily colored my view of it. Though I wanted to go, her reaction made me doubt myself. It disappeared from my college timeline for a very long time.
If I could go back, I’d tell the old me not to let others influence her like that. I wanted to go and nothing should have gotten in the way of that.
In the end, it was the study abroad program that won out. I had the opportunity to go to Oxford University for six weeks the following year. It was a summer unlike any other.
England held a different type of magic for me. I was transfixed by the city of dreaming spires.
Sleepy little Oxford took my breath away like nothing had before. Writing greats such as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Lewis Carroll had studied in these hallowed halls. I could often be found sitting in the Trinity College gardens and daydreaming of my own writing legacy. One day, I thought to myself. One day my own work would be listed among theirs.
It was a lofty goal, but even as a kid, I always had high ambitions for myself.
Going to Oxford changed me. New experiences became a high priority on my list. I was determined to learn as much as possible and to see as much as possible.
Things fell into place when I got back. By that time, I was more than halfway done with my college career. I had a fantastic experience on my resume. I could finally relax and focus on my studies.
Except I couldn’t. Like Ariel, I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted more. I yearned for something extraordinary.
I didn’t revisit going to Disney until my senior year. I had foolishly taken up an intense course of study when I should have been relaxing and having fun. But it wasn’t like me to do that; I liked challenges and new experiences. Thus, when the topic of the future arose, the answer struck me like a bolt of lightning: the Disney College Program.
I walked by the same spot in the campus center concourse. The same flyer was posted there. Same purple background, same Mickey ears, but this time, there was something different. A new line of text appeared there, almost like magic: The internship where dreams come true.
The eager nineteen-year-old Devin woke up as if from a long nap. She kicked the tired, twenty-two-year-old Devin into action. To hell with convention. Who said I had to do things the way others expected me to?
Go, I told myself. What are you waiting for?
I’m Devin, and this is how I earned my ears.
Devin Melendy grew up in the suburbs of Boston. She decided to take up writing when it became apparent her Hogwarts letter was lost in the mail.
Devin graduated from UMass Amherst in 2016 with a degree in English literature. In her spare time, she enjoys photography, traveling, and spending time with friends and family. You can find her at the beach or Fenway Park in the summer.
This is her first book.
A favorite "shift" for cast members is working Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. A common job is passing out free candy to guests. Who wouldn't like free candy? (Well, there's always somebody.) And, every so often, a guest returns the favor.
Ever since I attended Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween party in September, I’d been dying to pick up a treat shift. Cast members are stationed all over the park, armed with barrels of candy and tokens for guests with allergies. These shifts are untrained, which allows cast members of all roles to pick them up. However, this made finding the shifts very difficult.
Treat shifts are typically assigned to attractions cast members. The Not-So-Scary parties started early in September. By October, these cast members had been going to the parties several times a week. Many try to give them away on Facebook, but they go lightning fast. After days of constant vigilance, I managed to pick up two shifts.
The shift call time began at six o’clock. I hurried to Costuming at five and made a mad dash for the outfit. That place was like the mall on Saturday—dozens of people rifling through the racks, getting restless while they waited in line for dressing rooms, and trying the patience of the staff. I emerged relatively unscathed and jumped on the bus for the Magic Kingdom tunnels.
The details of the costume made it one of my favorites. The top was a green-and-yellow striped button-down dotted with purple bats. The skirt was simple, purple, and shorter than my everyday prairie costume. The last two pieces—the apron and the bat headband—were the best parts.
It was an odd feeling to go on stage without my tights; I was so used to wearing them by now. This was my first shift in a new costume and I was dying to try different shops within the parks.
After all of the treat shifters clocked in, our coordinators led us to the rear of Peter Pan’s Flight. I always passed the ride in the tunnels on my way to work, but never turned down this way. A soft, gentle melody tinkled in the background. With a grin, I realized it was “You Can Fly.” Giggling, a few of us swayed back and forth.
I was assigned to the castle wall location, squarely in front of Pinocchio’s Village Haus and Prince Charming’s Carrousel. While we waited, I made friends with another cast member named Mariana. She pointed out that we had a perfect view of Hallowishes. I’d seen the show a few times by this point, but it was definitely one of the greats.
The coordinator explained the rotation schedule as guests began to line up. There were three positions: barrel, exit, and greeter. We rotated spots about every thirty minutes, which took the pressure off.
The shift was fun because it allowed me to meet more cast members. It was a real mixture of people. Some were merchandise like me, but others were seaters at restaurants, attractions, and quick service cast.
The low ring of the spooky bell sounded promptly at seven o’clock. As the cackling Ghost Host came over the speakers, guests big and small arrived to grab their candy. I saw dozens of great costumes. There were little princesses, pirates, a Princess Leia here and there, Minions, superheroes, and more.
The adults were more excited than the kids. Some were even greedy. One woman snarled at all of us for being too stingy with the candy. She had apparently spent “four hundred pounds” to get into the park and insisted we fill up her candy bag. Long after she was gone, I mumbled that she “obviously didn’t need more candy,” and Mariana smirked.
An older couple soon made up for her rudeness. The two had to be annual passholders; they knew the setup very well. Not only were they exceedingly kind, but they came bearing gifts.
The husband paused at my barrel and unzipped his jacket. Under it he wore a heavy lanyard full of homemade Disney pins. He had to have at least fifty of them. I complimented his work and he seemed to radiate pride.
“Pick one. You can take it.”
My mouth dropped open. “W-What?”
“They’re for cast appreciation,” he told me. “You guys do so much for us. Go on, pick one.”
I was dumbfounded. The line behind him was massing and my eyes moved quickly to respond. I raised a shaky hand and pointed to a Snow White pin. He nodded happily and pressed the pin into my hand.
“Thank you,” I said softly. I tucked it in my pocket for safekeeping and went back to work.
Later, during a lull, I studied the pin more closely. It was a bottle cap attached to a safety pin, quite like the Grape Soda pin from Up. A picture of Snow White was carefully glued to the top.
“Where did you get that?”
“That older couple who came by earlier. They just gave it to me. He said it was for ‘cast appreciation.’”
“Oh, that couple!” Mariana exclaimed. “They’re legendary. They come to the parks all the time and do nice things for cast members. The husband makes jewelry, I think.”
Two other cast members in Frontierland had pins like this one. I wondered if they had met the same couple.
I secured the pin to my apron and sighed happily. Cast members were given a great discount on merchandise, but this item was way more special than anything I could buy.
Continued in "Devin Earns Her Ears"!
For many guests, it's not all about the pixie dust, it's about the pins. You can stop any cast member, at any (reasonable) time, and demand to see (but not touch!) the pins on their lanyard. See one you like? It's yours, in exchange for whatever pin you want to exchange, even if it's one that the dog excreted or the family Buick ran over. Devin saw it another way to create magic.
“May I see your pins?”
I turned around instantly with a broad smile. A boy around seven or eight hovered near my register while his parents browsed the store. He had a small pouch slung over his shoulder designed to hold his collectible Disney pins.
“Sure, buddy. Looking for anything in particular?”
The boy studied my pin lanyard for a moment. “Star Wars pins.”
I pointed to a scarlet pin that sat just over my nametag. “That’s the symbol for the Rebel Alliance.”
The pin in question was from a Star Wars mystery set. The red starbird had become popular with the approaching release of Star Wars: Rogue One. His eyes widened.
“Oh, I’ll take that one!”
I took the pin from my lanyard and handed it over. The boy held out his lanyard and offered me a choice of traders.
“I’ll take that Ariel one.”
“Great,” he giggled. “I don’t like the princesses.”
This instance was just one of many pin trading interactions during a typical workday. It was a great way to meet guests and sometimes improve their vacations.
Disney pin trading is a company-sponsored practice of buying and trading collectible pins. Guests may trade with cast members or other guests to build their collections. First introduced in 1999, it now takes place in all Disney parks and resorts, to the delight of thousands of traders.
Merchandise, custodial, and other non-safety related cast members wear pin lanyards throughout the day. Guests approach them with the intent to trade, sometimes to complete collections or to rid themselves of pins they don’t like.
Like any activity at Disney, there are certain rules established for pin trading. This etiquette has been published by the company, and is as follows:
I was skeptical of pin trading when I first started. I even scoffed at it. It seemed like a waste of hard-earned money when the vacation itself was expensive. But the moment I started trading, I fell in love with it. There was nothing better than seeing a guest light up when trading.
Nearly twenty years have passed since pin trading was first introduced, and new traders start every day.
Disney pins have become a merchandise category unto their own. Almost every Disney character has been immortalized on a pin. Some sets are limited edition, and may only be found in the parks. Some are mystery sets, also known as a “reveal and conceal.” Others are exclusive to Disney events, such as the Halloween parties, the Christmas parties, and the anniversary of the park opening.
Frontierland is home to the biggest pin trading store in Magic Kingdom: the Trading Post. One wall in the store is entirely devoted to the limited edition pins, which are the most expensive. Other pins include exclusive releases for annual passholders. But the biggest draw appeared to be the Hidden Mickey pins.
Hidden Mickey pins cannot be purchased. These pins are only available to cast members. They do not come in sets and can be replenished every day. New editions are released annually and published online. Guests can trade for them, often to their extreme delight, because of their rarity. I’ve watched, dumbfounded, as a guest traded me a beautiful Jack Skellington pin for a tarnished pin shaped like a macaroon, simply because it was a Hidden Mickey pin. Hidden Mickey pins are rare, I knew, but certainly not worth trading a pin that cost over fifteen dollars.
Continued in "Devin Earns Her Ears"!