My Experience: Doing a J1 in Walt Disney World, Florida

Standfirst: Caoimhe Foran describes her experience of working abroad in Disneyland, Florida, over the summer.

In the summer of 2019, I took part in the Disney Cultural Exchange Program in Orlando, Florida. Ever since I found out about the program, I couldn’t wait to get to college and apply. As someone who’s a massive Disney fan, this program sounded like an absolute dream. Work in Florida and get to visit the parks all the time? Sign me up!

The application process was, in a word: long. It involved an online application along with two separate interviews in London.  I didn’t know what I would do if I didn’t get a place on the program. I spent days reading blogs and watching Youtube videos on how to ace the interview process. In the end, I got a place, and started to save money every month, for what I knew would be an expensive summer. 

After visa meetings, group chat gossip and flight bookings, I was finally on my way. I had come to a conclusion early on that another suitcase would have to be bought with the amount of merchandise and gifts I was planning on buying. It was great getting together will all the ‘Irish Crew’ and finding out where everyone was working. 

Meeting my roommates was next on the cards, and I was understandably nervous. I was fortunate enough to get along with all my housemates who hailed from Hong Kong, France and Australia, and I could always depend on them to make me smile after a hard day's work. As someone who has lived at home for college, I finally understood what it meant to sleep on the creakiest bed imaginable and face that dread Walmart shopping trip.

I spent most of my time in Maestro Mickey’s at Disney’s All-Star Resort. At first, I was a bit disappointed to be placed in a resort rather than a park, but that quickly changed. I had the chance to get to know various guests and see them before they went to parks and ask them how their day was. Plus I had the best fellow cast members, who made a day at work feel like a breeze. Working in a resort also meant that going to the parks on my time off was all the more special, and I did that a lot. As cast members, we get incredible benefits, including discounts on dining, merchandise and hotels and we got to preview the new Star Wars land, Galaxy’s Edge before everyone else. Talk about perks.

A lot of people criticise the Disney Programs for being exploitative of young, eager Disney fans who work minimum wage for ‘The Mouse’.  It isn’t like working in your local Spar. Disney spends a week training you on the importance of guest service, your role as a cast member, engaging in conversation, looking presentable and keeping guests happy. Halfway through the program, I will admit I went through a bit of a lull. I was insanely tired from working late and early hours and the consistent rain was not helping. Then, as it dawned on me that I only had a few weeks left until the end of my program, I asked myself: “what am I doing?”.  I was in my favourite place in the whole world, and I was not taking advantage of it! So, I made it my mission to go to the parks almost every single day, try every food place I hadn’t tried, and go on all the 50+ rides in the park.     

I am now counting down the days until I can revisit a Disney Park. Yeah, that’s right, I spent almost 3 months in one, and that wasn’t enough for me.  During the summer, a New York Post article about the strangeness of millennials who go to Disney went viral. Although I’m not a millennial, I do fall under the category of an 'adult who goes to Disney Parks without kids'. From my experience of spending weeks in the parks, I have never seen more parents stressed than I have at Disney. From trying to shove their screaming child into a photo with Mickey to the Orlando heat getting to everybody, it’s not going to be magical 100% of the time. Readers, if you want my advice, go to Disney with a group of friends before kids come into the picture, I promise you it will be the best trip ever. 

Looking back on my program, I only have good memories and a longing to return. Yes, there were some low points, and having to smile all the time at work was hard if you were feeling down. Although, the best feeling was knowing you had the opportunity to make someone’s day extra special and getting the chance to go on your favourite ride over and over again.  I miss the freedom of just heading into the parks with my camera and taking it all in. My program was filled with coffee, ponchos, mickey waffles, and Americans being bewildered by my name. I have a feeling it will be one of the best summers of my life.