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Students experience backstage magic with Disney trip

December 3, 2018

KOKOMO, Ind. –  The magic seems to happen effortlessly when you visit Walt Disney World Resorts. From exchanging hugs with Mickey Mouse to watching fireworks light up the sky behind a fairytale castle, small touches add up to an experience never to forget.

However, a lot of work happens behind-the-scenes to create that enchanted experience for the approximately 250,000 people each day who visit its theme parks, hotels, cruise ships, and other attractions. 

Twenty Indiana University Kokomo students and five faculty members, in majors including business, criminal justice, hospitality and tourism, and sociology, got a backstage look at how the magic is created, during a five-day visit to Walt Disney World in Orlando.

Business major Allison Hopkins was “blown away” by the experience, and has already implemented practices learned while on the trip.

“The best thing Disney has going for them is the sense of pride in their company,” she said. “If I am ever part of a business, or run my own, I want to figure that piece out. I want everyone there to be driven, and excited to work for that company, like the cast members at Disney.”

Josh Main, a hospitality and tourism major, was most impacted by his experiences with the food service side. From his classes focused on food safety and preparation, he was amazed to watch a chef prepare and serve a duck dish in front of a live audience.

“With those classes, you know there are a lot of things that can go wrong, such as undercooking the duck and making people sick, or overcooking it and making it inedible,” said Main, from Kokomo. “You have to get it on point for everything to go right, and he did. It was amazing. I thought it was a very good experience of seeing how a professional was ready for every possibility, and did it right.”

He came home convinced his niche in the hospitality and tourism field is in food service, specifically catering.

“I learned how much customer service there is within the food side, and I’m very big on customer service,” he said. “The customer service there was amazing. No matter what was going on, the cast members were always smiling and helping. It was a great example to follow.”

The trip included leadership classes, a tour of the company’s emergency management center, tasting international cuisine at the EPCOT Food and Wine Festival, and discussions with professionals in human resources, security, and guest services, among other events.

“I don’t know too many businesses you could visit to see all of these aspects performed at the highest possible level,” said Gabby VanAlstine, lecturer of business. “Everything they do is so intentional, everything is consistent. I wanted them to see how much Disney does in terms of sustainability, in how they treat their cast members, and how they build and foster a culture that is so supportive of the end goal, which is to create magic for the world.”

Kelly Brown, associate professor of criminal justice and homeland security, noted that it provides a great example for criminal justice students because of the wide variety of venues it oversees with security and emergency management. It hires about 2,300 security people just in its Florida property, so it’s a viable career option too.

“We were able to talk to them about how you do security at a hotel, on a cruise ship, in a theme park, and other locations,” she said. “There’s so much, and they are one of the best in the world.”

Criminal justice major Allison Coles saw “the Disney way” in action, as cast members calmly intervened in a dispute over holding places in a line, resolving it in a way that left all involved happy.

“They try to handle events without confrontation as much as possible, and make it as easy as possible for the guests to make the right decisions,” the Kokomo resident said. “They really try to build community with how they keep control of safety in the area. We’ve learned about that in our classes, and it was nice to see it in action.” 

As president of the Enactus student organization, Hopkins, from Tipton, was most impressed by the design process thinking model used to get new projects off the ground. She tried it in a brainstorming session, and was amazed her group developed its spring project in 45 minutes.

“I’m using this process every time I have to brainstorm something, ever,” she said. “It was only three steps. It worked so well, I was pumped. Disney is very good at making complicated things simple.”

Mark Meng, assistant professor of hospitality and tourism, said the trip gave all students a chance to see and experience what they’ve learned in their classrooms, in real world applications.

“Disney is the gold standard in hospitality and tourism and business,” he said. “They’re seeing how people apply the theories we teach, at the highest level. It’s a vivid, unforgettable way to experience those ideas for themselves.”

Additional faculty members leading the trip included Heather Kennedy-Eden, assistant professor of hospitality and tourism, and Jamie Oslawski-Lopez, acting assistant professor of sociology.

Funding for the trip was provided by the IU Kokomo “Key” program — the Kokomo Experience and You, to make it accessible to all students at minimal cost. The program launched in 2016 with the goal of providing students chances to connect with people and participate in real world experiences. The goal is for each student to have a travel experience within his or her major.

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 12/03/2018