A group of students from the Department of Hospitality, Hotel Management and Tourism in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences recently gained valuable insights on the hospitality industry from one of the world’s most iconic brands.

Group photo of the Disney Week participants from Texas A&M. The large group is standing in front of the entrance to the Star Wars: Galaxy Edge experience
Twenty-five graduate and undergraduate students from Texas A&M’s Department of Hospitality, Hotel Management and Tourism and their instructors recently participated in Disney Week training at Walt Disney World. (Disney World)

Twenty-five undergraduate and graduate students, led by Heather Eden, Ph.D., instructional assistant professor, and Melyssa-Anne Stricklin, senior academic advisor, recently participated in a weeklong Disney Hospitality Operations Trip to Walt Disney World in Florida.

During Disney Week, the students took three Disney Imagination Campus classes on leadership, teamwork and theme park design. They also met with several leaders of Disney’s Pop Century Resort, who introduced them to the Disney philosophy of hospitality and what it takes to be a hospitality leader, plus took time to answer students’ questions.

Disney Imagination Campus trainers, referred to as “cast members,” taught the students course concepts and guided them around the park to show how the concepts were applied. They also facilitated hands-on activities that allowed students to further apply what they learned.

“We have had a longstanding relationship with the Walt Disney Co., especially through the Disney College Program,” Eden said. “This program gives college students the ability to work and live at Disney World while earning a salary and receiving college credit by taking classes online at their home university.”

Learning the Disney way

Although Texas A&M is one of the top five universities to contribute students to its internship program through the Disney College Program, Eden said this was the first time to her knowledge a group of students was taken to visit the Disney Imagination Campus. 

Two women, Dr. Heather Eden and Melyssa-Anne Stricklin, taking a selfie at Disney World, The Spaceship Earth globe is behind them as well as four bushes shaped as Chip 'n' Dale,  Pluto and Minnie Mouse.
Dr. Heather Eden (left) and Melyssa-Anne Stricklin led the students learning about the Disney way of teamwork, leadership and hospitality during the recent Disney Week. (Heather Eden/Texas A&M AgriLife)

Eden said one of the main lessons students learned was courtesy is at the core of the Disney philosophy on hospitality — and that courtesy involves respect.

“Respect is a value that Aggies hold dear,” she said. “On many occasions, I have heard Dr. (Jeffrey) Savell say that we are in the people business, and Disney strives to create magical experiences for all people. I think there are a lot of similarities in the priority Disney places on people and service and the priority Texas A&M gives them.”  

She said Disney follows five keys of quality standards of excellence – safety, courtesy, show, efficiency and inclusion – and its theme parks are treated like stages where each day is a performance.

“They do not want the magic and fantasy world they create to have real-world intrusions, so they strive to always have customers not only see the show but feel they are part of it,” Eden said. “They want to make sure everyone feels included and is part of the Disney experience.”

Stricklin said she knows the “memorable and transformative experience” of learning the Disney way will stick with the students because she has experienced it herself, having completed two Disney Institute courses on leadership excellence and quality service.  

“I make intentional decisions to incorporate that knowledge into my career and how I manage my team,” she said. “I know our students will incorporate the knowledge from RPTS 489 and HMGT 689 Disney Operations and their three Disney Imagination Campus courses into how they approach their future coursework, internships and post-graduation plans.”

Through the Disney Week experience, our students were able to more fully understand the magic behind the mouse and the beauty of the hospitality industry.

Melyssa-Anne Stricklin

Stricklin added that while many of the students entered our course only knowing that Disney World is a vacation destination, they left fully understanding “the magic behind the mouse and the beauty of the hospitality industry.”

“Experiencing Disney World through the eyes of cast members who intentionally think through every aspect of the guest experience from the texture of the ground to cast/guest interactions to the smell of fresh popcorn as you enter Mainstreet USA of Magic Kingdom is an unforgettable and magical experience for students,” she said.  

Situational learning during Disney Week

Students had classrooms in EPCOT, Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. At EPCOT, they were introduced to the Disney way of leadership. At Hollywood Studios, they were given lessons in teamwork, and at Magic Kingdom they learned about theme park design.

Five men, Disney "cast members" speaking to students. There is a large display that says POP behind them
Disney employees, referred to as “cast members,” toured students around the parks and pointed out the application of various design elements. (Disney World)

Students were given an exercise in teamwork at Hollywood Studios by being asked to “translate” the Galactic Basic Standard language used in Star Wars movies and engage in group interactions that allowed them to obtain clues needed to finish their assignment.

As the students walked around the Disney parks, they pointed out design aspects they recognized and how they had been adapted to different scenarios.

“As they learned about different aspects of design, they got into groups and worked on creating a theme park of their own design using their own ideas,” Eden said.

During Disney Week, students also worked on individual class assignments.   

“For their assignments, some students focused on specific design elements of Disney parks and how they were themed to match the land or park where they were located,” Eden said. “Other students focused on the storytelling aspects of Disney and how those enhance the Disney experience. The students looked at the experience from their own perspective and what they wanted to do in their field of study — and possibly as a future career.”

Student experiences during Disney Week

Disney training participant Natasha Trevino said her favorite experience was the discussion with the management team from Disney’s Pop Century Resort, which allowed her to learn more about the Walt Disney Company and to create connections with company leaders.

Trevino, who will graduate at the end of this semester with a master’s degree in hospitality, hotel management and tourism, said the experience helped her improve her leadership and teamwork skills.

Five students, one male and four females, talking with each other and working on a project
Students also worked on individual projects as part of their classwork during Disney Week at Walt Disney World. (Disney World)

“I know the classes and experiences I had while on this trip will help me in my future,” said Trevino, who also participated in the Disney College Program. “I plan on working at Disney World and creating a career within the company, so this trip opened new doors for me to make connections, learn the Disney way and solidify my choice in Disney as my future employer.”

Learning from one of the biggest hospitality giants in the world provided her with a wealth of knowledge and insights into hospitality and tourism, she said.

Clacey Core, who is pursuing a master’s degree in tourism management, said she enjoyed the classes on leadership and teamwork.  

“Completing tasks with my fellow classmates allowed us to communicate effectively, learn from one another and actively collaborate,” Core said.

She said she also appreciated Disney’s philosophy in taking exceptional care of its guests and providing the best possible experience for them.  

“Being in the classes and on the Disney property also showed me the importance of attention to detail in every aspect of the hospitality business,” she said. “As I plan to have a career in the tourism industry, this attention to detail will help me better serve customers or guests in the future.”   

Applying lessons from Disney Week

Eden said during Disney Week the students learned a vast amount of information on a variety of subjects that could help them in the future — no matter what career they choose. 

“The way Disney does business can be adapted into many professions,” she said. “The students learned about design aspects when creating customer experiences and how to control what visitors look at and how they move through areas. They also learned about visual storytelling and how architecture and design can enhance the guest experience and help convey a chosen theme.”  

Stricklin added that the experience was useful in helping the students understand more about some of the careers available for those who graduate with degrees in hospitality, tourism, event management, leadership, communications and others.

“Students enjoy their experience while in college, but their post-graduate future is often abstract and unsure,” she said. “When students participate in these types of experiences, they expand their comfort zone and opportunities, returning as more mature individuals ready to tackle their future.”

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