Disney College Program
February 26, 2021
During the summers of 1995 and 1996 I worked on the Walt Disney World College Program at the Happiest Place on Earth.
Just a disclaimer for those who believe Disney is the warm fuzzy mecca of a bygone time where people still treated each other warmly, hugged their neighbor, and cartoon birds landed on your shoulder and sang to you: This is not a feel good happy vibe about all the wonders of the Magic Kingdom and how to find the secret Mickey on each ride. If you wish to still hold on to your pixie dust encrusted magic Mouseketeer ears then please by all means STOP reading this.
I was never, nor am I now, a Disney enthusiast. Yes, as a child I enjoyed their movies and desperately wanted to see the Magic Kingdom with my own eyes but I always found the Bugs Bunny cartoons to be more up my alley. Bugs had the attitude, the charisma,he was cool. Bugs could hit you over the head with a mallet while dressed in drag and it was ok. Stop for a minute and picture Mickey Mouse doing that. You can’t can you?
Disney has perpetuated their image as the G Rated darling: stealing the hearts and minds of the children and the children at heart all over the world, despite their ruthless business practices and the worship of the almighty dollar.In the spring on 1995 I was an Exercise Science major at Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Ma. I worked in kitchens since I was 13 years old and was at the time working my way through school as a line cook at a local Holiday Inn. For those that have worked the line in any restaurant you understand the lifestyle. You know the heat, stress, booze, and drugs that are involved in being a restaurant employee. Most sane people cannot maintain this hectic lifestyle and I for one had it with the heat and stress.
My master plan was simple:
A. Take a lifeguarding class at school.
B. Apply my new found lifeguarding skills to a summer working the beaches of Cape Cod.
C. Get lots of girls to like me.
As fate would have it my lifeguarding instructor worked at Typhoon Lagoon the year before and was praising the Disney college program, the friends he made, and the memories he had. He failed to indulge in the $6.00/hr pay rate, the lack of food and bills paid and the beating your liver will take on cases of Rebel Beer and Boones Wine you would only be able to afford on your meager wages. I asked him after class how to get in and he told me they were recruiting right from campus the following week. They were opening a new water park in (Blizzard Beach) so they would take anybody, even those that don’t fit the “Cast Member” mold.
The following week I sat in on the recruiting process on campus. Arriving late and a little high I grabbed a chair in the back and sat through the high priced and heavily produced Disney approved video describing life as a College Program Cast Member.
I watched my enthralled colleagues, looking up and down the rows and seeing a big difference between Me and Them. They were all eager faced with pixie dust dancing in their eyes at the prospect of working such jobs as merchandising, rides, garbage cleanup, cooking, and lifeguarding. It appeared to me to be at the Happiest Place on Earth and living right on Disney property was a dream most have wanted their whole lives. Most were under 20 and I was a little older, a little more grounded yet probably stoned at the time and was the only one who looked at it as my ticket out of the kitchen and into the luxury of a lifeguard throne perched high above the masses.
I sat arms folded and slightly indifferent to the sales pitch these Disney reps were doling out and tried to remember if the girl three seats down from me was doing keg stands at my apartment the week before. I remember thinking: Just give me the damn job already but I smiled and wore a tie and sat through an interview with a Disney rep who smiled a beautiful vanilla smile permanently baked onto her face after hours of practice in the mirror and who today is probably a PR rep for Disney, secretly wanting to kill everyone around her. I got a College Program packet and pixie dust sprinkled on my face and went home to await the letter for Disney.
A few weeks later I received my letter and information on how to get to Vista Way Apartments, my new home for three months, and what to expect when I got there.
Now, Disney is very strict with their college program people. They know you do not simply stick a bunch of college students from all over the country together in an apartment complex on their property with that many teenage and twenty something hormones bouncing around and that many liquor stores and bars and drug dealers in the area. Add some International students in the mix representing their countries authentically at EPCOT and you have either a recipe for a legal nightmare (from the herd of high priced Disney attorneys perspective) or the recipe for a damn good time (from the perspective of most of the college students on property).
Disney has very strict rules about who can stay after midnight: absolutely nobody that is not on the program and living in Vista Way can stay overnight. Not your mom, not your dog, not your best friend. Many CP’s learned the hard way: Disney does not play. No warnings, no excuses, no nothing. Here’s your shit, here’s your walking papers, here’s your name tag, give us our pixie dust back and get the fuck out. I watched one of my 1996 roommates disappear in one afternoon just for the crime of being completely hammered and thinking it was funny to steal the security guards golf cart when he wasn’t looking. Which it was.
For a guy from Boston with no transportation until his flight home at the end of August getting kicked out was not an option. There wasn’t any cell phones, debit cards, Facebook or even what we consider to be “the internet” at those times so communication and the movement of money into an account would take a phone call home, wiring money, and getting anally probed by the bank. Not that I had a chance to take anyone back with me anyways and why would I? Considering the amount of southern exposure I was getting with these doe eyed sorority girls from the south it was a no brainer.
You live in a virtual bubble at Vista Way and a man does what he can to survive, get free rides where you can, and secure himself a nice warm body to warm up to at night. I was so isolated that I didn’t even know Jerry Garcia passed away until my mother called me (I was a pretty big Dead fan in College after seeing them several times).
To give you an idea of how badly I stood out: I had a thick blue collar Boston accent way before Goodwill Hunting made it cool. I had no sense of “college style”: I am a pale man who had worked in kitchens since he was a tween. I look like Powder from the movie Powder, I say the wrong things, always. I play guitar and listen to old blues and jam rock. I used “fuck” in every other sentence and I blatantly gawked at the amount of gorgeous women around me. I was not used to pretty girls being friendly. Being from Massachusetts, and from a blue collar family, you get used to a more flinty brand of lady. I also did not understand the allure or vernacular of Greek life. In the very first week of the program the lifeguards were in the pool all day. The trainers told us it would be like “Rush Week”. I had no fucking clue what that was.
Living on Disney property with no car and no cash flow other than the $100 or so you make in a week your social life is limited to the 3000 or so other students at VW. The other option was to hook up with a Disney perm and get picked up at the gate of Vista Way like a kid at a seventh grade dance.
I couldn’t have arrived in Florida any less prepared. I was two days early and stayed at a Holiday Inn near Vista Way for a few days on my employee rate. I was woefully pale and my Boston ginger skin would fry like an ant under a magnifying glass without sunblock SPF 3000. I grew up a one hour drive from Cape Cod beaches but because I worked in kitchens for many years I rarely got to the beach or even outside for that matter. I had two wisdom teeth removed the day before I left and was alternating between bleeding from my face, taking pain killers, drinking cheap beer, and tripping on said stimulants by the pool with families who were taking a day off from visiting the parks.
Two days later I got out of the white van at Vista Way with all my shit in a hand-me-down suitcase and a $200 acoustic guitar. I was slightly jarred from too much free Holiday Inn coffee and lonely after two days alone. I had no friends working at Disney at the time, still in pain and woozy from the wisdom teeth removal, and was not dressed in the appropriate 1995 preppy college student uniform.
I looked more like Tommy Chong in his first scene in Up In Smoke: cut off blue jeans, hawaiin shirt, and glazed eyes. Most of the other newly arrived CP’s where wearing polo shirts and khakis with boat shoes, a clean haircut, a Dave Matthews Crash CD in their walkman, a bright and shiny face brimming with the possibilities of Disney employment. There were no iPhones(nor Ipads nor iTunes nor i-anythings), no real “internet”, definitely no social networks, no laptops, few cash machines, money was still “money” and the idea of using your credit card to buy something was still an annoyance to the vendor. This meant that while standing in line to get your assigned key and directions to your new home you had to actually talk to people.
I will never forget the first person I met at Vista Way. She was six feet tall and wore a cowboy hat and was the epitome of Big Texas in every way. I said hello, she yelled “HOWDY!!”. I told her I was from Boston, and her eyes lit up and proceeded to talk about how great my city was, how the people were so nice and why did I talk so funny?
After a “Threes Company” worthy miscommunication of words I finally realized she meant “Austin” and I had to backpedal and clarify to her that I was not from anywhere near the great city of Austin. She promptly shut up and turned back in line. This was going great.
Since Disney is very good about safety and being on top of shit us lifeguards had to show up before the other CPers to do a week “In the Water” training. Most of us took that to mean “throw parties”. The other College Program people would show up in two weeks and by that time there was a definite “US vs Them” vibe going on. I came to find other CPers hated the lifeguards and I couldn’t blame them but hey, pick a better College Program job than “Merchandise” next time.
Lifeguarding at Disney meant you don’t have to smile or really interact with people, you worked great hours at the pool or water park and got lots of sun. Plus Baywatch was popular then and all the fifteen year old groups of Brazilian girls at the park would cry out in their bad english in a flirty sing-songy voice: “oohh hiiii, Baywatch! autograph autograph!” My small town, super immature Massachusetts ego loved it.
I was on the swim team in college for about a half year and considered myself a pretty good swimmer. Most of these poor kids could barely swim 100 meters without hanging on the wall for an hour. Mix the lack of swimming prowess with massive amounts of “getting to know each other” alcohol at the various parties that sprung up the first couple of days at Vista Way and you have a recipe for disaster. Of course, like an idiot who doesn’t know any better, I show up to swim my 500 warmup with fucking speedos on. I’m thinking “swim practice” the rest of the 150 lifeguards are thinking “I don’t want to look like some Euro fruit loop with a banana hammock on in front of 150 strangers.”
Training was brutal. On the first day I watched three guys vomit right on the deck of the pool. One girl left altogether and a few people transferred out of lifeguarding. The company that Disney hired : “Ellis and Associates” had such a good racket going. Their reasoning was this: Red Cross certifications were not enough to stand by a 1 foot wade pool making sure you and your kids don’t drown. Mr. Ellis himself is like 300 pounds and was notorious for challenging future lifeguards by pretending to drown and sink to the bottom of the pool and thrash like an alligator in a death roll when you try to save him.
Again, Disney Does Not Play. They have safety on lockdown. In fact, it is known amongst Cast Members that nobody has ever died on Disney property. They just make sure to keep you alive enough until you are off property. Of course this is utter bullshit and just another example of the Disney mythology that everything is perfect here. The grass is a little bit greener, the road signs are purple with little mickey ears behind them, and you are immortal.
After my brief encounter with Texas gaI I was not feeling very optimistic about meeting people I could relate to. With mouth throbbing, pale and hungover, I arrive at my designated apartment at Vista Way and hesitantly opened the door to my new abode.
The way Disney does things at Vista Way is they want to make the living arrangements as diverse as possible so you can get to know people from all over the place. The apartments at Vista Way have three bedrooms with two twin beds in them. One shared living space and kitchenette. Vista Way had two pools, a small gym, lots of security, and surrounded by walls. Right outside of Vista Way is Interstate 4 and across from that is Disney property. It’s is located right across the highway from what used to be Disney Marketplace and Pleasure Island. I hear it’s not there anymore which is a shame. We’d hit PI at midnight and do the scheduled Macarana and Electric Slide. God, I feel old just writing that sentence. It’s amazing how fun those dances are when you are young and drunk on cheap beer. It’s also amazing how we all managed to get around with no Uber, no debit cards, and no cell phones.
I had one roommate from Colorado, one from Louisiana, one from New York, two from Chicago. I’m still friends with all of them. We all had one thing in common: we liked to drink and have a good time.
Tim was a CU guy. He was the unnamed leader of the group. He had an affable way about him and should have gone into politics. He took to calling me “Corey Kid” as my Boston accent including alot of “what’s up kid”s. The thing I immediately liked about this guy: he gave no shits. He was funny as hell and would do some wild shit in the house (sometimes literally). Everybody loved Tim and with good reason. He also was the master mind behind our famed FRB (Fruity and Refreshing Bevereges) parties.
Brian (or “Forrest” as we affectionately took to calling him), was the only person any of us had met from Louisiana and his thick drawl made him easy fodder for Tims comparisons to Forrest Gump, which just came out that year. Brian introduced me to beignets and cream which explains why Louisiana is one of the most obese states in the country. Man, that shit is good.
Ryan was a New York boy through and through. He was a cook at the Magic Kingdom and worked his ass off. We never saw him, but when we did we made sure to put a beer in his hand. Ryan got “Hardest Worker” out of the group in my opinion, which may not have been a good thing since 4 out of 6 of us were lifeguards at Blizzard Beach and tried to work as little as possible.
Bill was Ryans roommate and we affectionately called him “Bill The Mexican” for obvious reasons. I think the first day we met him he had a “If you want something done right hire a mexican” tee shirt on. Which Tim immediately jumped on. Only Tim could get away with such things but Bill took it all with good humor. Always smiling, Bill worked in Tomorrow Land at the Magic Kingdom and ate hawaiin pizza every night. We made sure to keep him thoroughly intoxicated as well.
Dan was my roommate and both he and Bill were from Chicago. Dan was a tall funny guy who somehow put up with me as his roommate. You must remember I never lived anywhere but Massachusetts and everyone I knew was from tougher blue collar worlds. I was not great at dealing with people outside of my culture. He was the perfect roommate and we still friends to this day. I’m sure I put him through hell sometimes with my attitude. Dan was always smiling and the following year both he and I came back to Disney to work different jobs. Dan was a River Boat captain and I auditioned and got the role in Characters at the Magic Kingdom.
The six of us made up the residency at Vista Way. We had many drunk shenanigans, parties, very little drama and lots of laughs. Three months is the perfect amount of time to know five other strangers chucked into a small apartment together and forced to live with meager wages. We managed to make it work. We partied almost every night. I annoyed them all with bad Neil Young and Grateful Dead songs on my guitar. Tim made fun of my voice. It was perfect harmonious living.
I met my second Texas friend, Heath Mitchell from Lubbock, TX, during lifeguard training. Heath and I both had this great idea of selling door to door Disney College Program official tee shirts. We got high and created a David Letterman-style “top ten list” of things overheard at Vista Way. We printed up some tee shirts and we were on our way to our side hustle. We printed out hundreds of batches of these tees and sold them door to door at Vista Way. We eventually sold out and funded our marijuana habit.
Heath would say “just gotta make enough to go back home and get that gold plated pistol, man.” He was so authentic Texas: big truck, big attitude, big country music collection, the drawl. We were polar opposites and got along great. One thing I can tell you about Texas folks: they are respectful and proud. I can honestly say I’ve never met a real Texan that wasn’t an affable, down home country roots type of person. They are all full of “yes m’ams” and “thank ye m’ams” and they love their college football.
One day I was outside mangling my guitar, sitting on the banks of one of the shallow cesspool/ponds that Vista Way has an abundance of. Behind me I hear the bustle of new Cast Members moving into their place. Six women I’ve never met were moving in. They were happy and chipper and eager to meet new people. I was a veteran after three weeks at Disney, and felt I needed to be the ambassador to all the secrets of Vista Way. Meet the neghbors: Marci, Cindy, Cindi, Mona and Kathy.
Kathy was from New Jersey. she went to Trenton State and grew up loving Disney and Florida. It was her dream job to work at Disney and she was a hostess at the Yacht and Beach Club. She was and is very pretty, petite and fit with dark hair and a great smile. That night we all went out to Church Street Station in Orlando and Kathy and I talked for hours on the steps of our new home after multiple Fat Tuesday mixed drinks ($1 for Disney College Program on Tuesdays!). We became a couple shortly thereafter and were joined at the hip for most of the duration of our time at Vista Way. We continued our romance for another year after returning home to the Northeast until it fizzled due to my immaturity, distance, time and money. She was ready for marriage and I wanted to snowboard.
Kathy is still a friend on social media and now lives in Florida where she is married, and in “the lifestyle” living the wild nightlife of a swinger and running private Adult Only parties all over Tampa Bay. Ah, Florida.
When you work on the College Program Disney gets around having to pay you living wages by saying it’s school and education related. So they make everyone take Traditions.
On Vista Way property there is a building with round tables and no windows. On one of your days off you get to wear a tie and sit in one of these rooms with other hungover Cast Members and an instructor for eight hours where you learn all about about Disney: The shady things Walt and Roy did to get the land in Florida, their Trademark laws if you ever decide to use one of their million copyrighted symbols or names, the Dark Times in the 70s, and Michael Eisners strange infatuation with Roger Rabbit.
If you don’t miss any classes you get your Ducktorate Degree and if you miss one you get a Mouseters Degree. If you miss more than one you are out of the program because again: Disney Does Not Play.
Our days working together got into a rhythm. Wake up whenever, hang out at the International Pool. So called because all the EPCOT international students hung out there, even though the Vista Way babysitters wanted everything to be all inclusive to everyone and didn’t want you to use that term but we still used that term. Come on, this is where the Norwegian, French and Japanese girls hung out. Why go to that other lame pool with boring Americans.
Dan and I got second hand bathrobes from Property Control for five bucks with the Grand Floridian labels on them (fancy!) and walked around the I-Pool like Hugh Hefner lookalikes. Drinks in hand, hot tubbing commencing. We were a hit.
During my second year on the College Program I worked in characters at Disney we would sign autographs. Back then every kid had a red autograph book for signing. So picture sweating out the booze from the night before, possibly still a little drunk and maybe slightly high, in your furry costume with bad eye holes, and all you see in front of you is smiling innocent faces with their books open at you.
Most of the time I played Shaker Bear from the Country Bear Jamboree: That auto animatronic show featuring three hillbilly bears jamming out. Shaker had a fiddle. That was his jam.
I think they pulled the costume out of storage because when we all got there for our summer term to play characters they told us we weren’t needed and we said “fuck that! We came down here after you offered us the $6.15 an hour job. We are staying” so they gave me the worst possible suit to wear in the summer to maybe punish me or try to get me to quit. I played him so much that coworkers just called me Shaker.
Remember: this is in Florida, in the summer. The Shaker costume is thick fur and what felt like Gore-tex as an under layer. He’s about 6’7 so you are looking out of the neck which means you sign autographs with your arms raised above you so it doesn’t look like he’s holding the books at his neck and you can’t see very well.
Add all of this together in your mind. Are you there ? Are you with me?
Ok so i used to draw a little fiddle next to the autograph to add that special Disney Magic. I could do it in my sleep. Probably still can. Anyways , this one particular time i sign, sight unseen, above my head, shoulders burning from the 1000th Autograph book shoulder raise, that i actually looked at what i was doing.
The fiddle looked just like a giant dick.
And thanks to the detailing there was hair at the tip where the strings where supposed to be…A big hairy dick in a little innocent child’s autograph book.
Their cherubic face full of hope and promise of the future staring up at me.
Now picture Shaker shitting his britches visualizing lawsuits and screaming Texas parents frantically trying to make said fiddle dick look absolutely Not like a dick with extreme details on the fiddle dick pic. Writing “fender” with little knobs on it and an arrow pointing at it with the word “fiddle!!! Not a dick!!” Which only made it look like a pimply dick with a weird tattoo on the balls.
And somewhere right now in America there is one or several 30 something year olds with an old autograph book from Disney with a giant dick in it. You’re welcome America.
To be continued…
Written by Corey Smaller Follow me on Instagram