By Amanda Joerndt
Youngstown State University students and alumni taking part in the Disney College Program, or DCP, at Walt Disney World were told on March 14 their time with the program would be cut short to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The cast members were informed of the shutdown by email, and the parks plan to remain closed until further notice, according to Monique Lopez, a YSU alumna who graduated with a musical theatre degree in December 2019.
“It’s kind of like, ‘Who could close down the happiest place on earth? That’s impossible,’” she said. “You can’t do that to us. So, we never really thought anything of it when it started happening.”
“It was really confusing for me and a lot of other people that we had all just got there. We were expecting to be there until August,” Lopez added.
Courtney Hibler, a senior journalism major, said she was at work when she heard about the shutdown and wasn’t anticipating that to be the last shift she would ever work for the DCP.
“It was crazy. Like, they told us, ‘We’re closing where it’s only going to be two weeks. You guys are going to get pay,’” she said. “I believe it was two days later, everyone got called in for a meeting by our leadership, and they said, ‘Hey, like, the program’s ending.’”
Luckily, Hibler was able to return home safely with only a four-day notice before cast members had to be off the premises.
“My parents were here and were ready to come get me because they had the time to do it,” Hibler said. “It was a little stressful packing everything up right away because, like, you don’t expect it. I didn’t expect to leave until May, so to have that news thrown on me, it was stressful.”
Hibler said the whole experience now feels like a dream.
“My life was there, working there every day,” she said. “I think they made the right decision because people from all over the world come there. I’m surprised I’m not sick.”
According to Hibler, she doesn’t plan on returning to the program.
“They said, ‘If you still have time left in your program, you can come back and finish your program,’” she said. “It doesn’t make sense that I came all the way home just to maybe go all the way back. I would have loved to stay. Like, that was my plan to stay in Florida and just to live down there and transfer universities, but it couldn’t happen.”
Lopez said her dream has always been to be a cast member at Walt Disney World.
“I’ve always wanted to work for Walt Disney as an entertainer,” she said. “So, I felt like going through the Disney College Program will give me that foot in the door that I wanted to possibly work my way up from where I was.”
Even though Walt Disney World is temporarily shut down, Lopez said she knows this is the smartest and safest option to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“I really want to be selfish and say, ‘No, it’s so unfair, and I want to go back to Disney,’” she said. “Keeping Walt Disney World open wouldn’t have helped at all. I know it’s hurting people to not be there because it was a lot of people’s dreams to be there.”
Stephanie Virgallito, a YSU alumna, works as a partnership marketing and promotions intern through the Disney Professional Internship Program at the Walt Disney Company and said her first concern was her projects being put on hold or canceled because of the pandemic.
“We were going to do media promotions, which unfortunately had to be canceled,” she said. “So a lot of things got pushed back or just straight up canceled. I mean it’s just life; it’s nothing that cast members could help at the moment.”
Virgallito said she was made aware of the shutdown three days before the park actually closed its doors.
“I eventually knew it was going to happen,” she said. “I knew it was going to come, we were actually the first theme park in Orlando to shut its doors.”
According to Virgallito, her team is still working remotely and have kept their regular 40-hour work week schedule.
“We have BlueJeans calls at least four times a week, so the communication has been very, very good,” she said. “Honestly, it is different, but my team has adapted to it very well.”
Lopez said she intends to find work in Florida and go back through the program, even if that means starting from the bottom again.
“We’re all dreaming a little bit that we can come back in May,” he said. “I do really, really, really want to go back. … Even if I don’t get to go back and finish my spring program.”