Most Disney fans have been to Disneyland at least once, but Disney devotees Nickole Iadarola and Erin Voudy took it one step further. They went to college at Disneyland.
Iadarola and Voudy just returned home after spending six months at Disneyland. The two Napa County residents recently graduated from the Disney College Program at the Disney theme parks in Anaheim.
The experience turned out to be more than just a work internship. Iadarola and Voudy said they learned what it’s like to work at Disneyland parks but they learned about themselves as well.
In 2009, while completing her psychology degree at Sonoma State University, Iadarola saw a poster on campus advertising the Disney internship program.
“The timing was perfect,” she said. Iadarola had just broken up with her fiancé. Already a Disney addict (she has Mickey Mouse tattooed on one shoulder), she thought that the internship would be a good way to get her Disney fix, some work experience and nurse a broken heart.
“Disney embodies everything that I want to be and everything that motivates me,” Iadarola, 24, said. “It’s the magic. It’s that belief that anything is possible.”
Iadarola encouraged Voudy to apply as well. The two young women have been best friends since kindergarten in Napa, attending El Centro Elementary School and then Redwood Middle School together.
At first, Voudy wasn’t sure. “I have social anxiety disorder,” Voudy said. She didn’t know if she could pass the interview process for the internship, let alone face the challenges of working with so many new people under stressful situations.
But Voudy, also 24, is also a Disney fan. “I’m really into storytelling, and Disney has amazing characters and stories,” she said. After a 21st birthday trip to Disneyland, “I told (Iadarola) I wanted to work there.”
Both women applied and were accepted into the six-month Disney College Program, which started last August and ended on Jan. 2.
Voudy was offered a job in merchandising at California Adventure retail stores, and Iadarola as a vacation planner or ticket salesperson. As interns, they were paid the same hourly rate as any other employee, or cast member, as they are called. Housing in a nearby apartment complex was provided at cost of about $100 a week. Food was not included.
During orientation and training, the women quickly caught on to the Disney-speak that is part of the park’s culture.
“Don’t say ‘uniform’, say ‘costume’,” Voudy said. “Don’t say ‘employees’, say ‘cast members’. Don’t say ‘customer’, say ‘guest’. Don’t say ‘behind the scenes’, say ‘backstage’.”
“Anywhere where a guest can see you is ‘on stage,’” Voudy said. Therefore, crossing arms, leaning, chewing gum, frowning or using a cell phone are strict no-no’s, she said.
There’s even a specific way to direct guests, known as “cast point.” Instead of pointing with the index finger, cast members point with the first and second fingers together. After using the two-fingered point for the past six months, it’s now ingrained, Voudy said. “For the rest of my life, I will cast point,” she said with a laugh.
There also is a Disney “look” for employees. A style manual specifies neutral nail polish, only one ring per hand and earrings smaller than a quarter, and no gaudy or glitter makeup.
“All the pixie dust belongs to Tinkerbell,” Voudy said with a smile.
Even “costumes” were specific to each job and area of the park. Iadarola’s “main entrance costume” consisted of blue pants, a red shirt and dark jacket. Voudy, working in California Adventure, wore the “Rushin’ River Outfitters” khaki-styled outfit.
Besides their jobs, the 350 interns, from colleges all over the U.S, also attended a weekly Disney class covering marketing, corporate business or leadership. There was homework and field exercises to do as well, they said.
Iadarola and Voudy each worked between 28 and 40 hours a week, including Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The peak capacity days at the park were some of the more challenging times, they said. It’s no fun to tell guests that park tickets are sold out, or to try to control a crowd clamoring to see a parade.
“I was afraid to talk to people,” Voudy said at first. Working crowd control during shows was also intimidating. “You get over that fear pretty quickly,” she said. “I would have people on really (busy) days just yell at me.”
“I’ve been called names, bad words. You learn to roll with it, but the hard part was leaning how to roll with it,” she said.
“The best part of the job was hearing people’s stories,” Voudy said. Even better, “My social anxiety disorder was eradicated by this whole experience. I don’t even notice it. ”
Iadarola also said the time she spent at Disneyland was healing, especially after her break-up with her fiancé. “When I first got there, I said ‘I don’t believe in happily ever after,’” Iadarola said. “But after seeing the magic and what’s in the hearts of people, I do now.”
Today, Iadarola is in graduate school, but Voudy may be headed back to Disneyland. Having studied theater, film and dance at Humboldt State, Voudy has been encouraged to apply for a job working “back stage” with Disney costumers.
Both would recommend the program to other college students.
“It’s life-changing,” Iadarola said.
“I started the program thinking I was one type of person,” Voudy said. “I finished the program thinking I’m a whole different person. I’m a happier person and it’s all thanks to Disney.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this story has been changed to reflect that Voudy has been encouraged to apply for a job working with Disney costumers.