The moment she was given her very own cast member name tag, 21-year-old hospitality major Zoë Dodson began living out her childhood dream: being in the Disney College Program.
A few days later, she woke up in her new apartment with five strangers as roommates who soon enough became her close friends. She headed over to Walt Disney World Resort, worked as a receptionist at Disney spas and said she wore a smile on her face every day knowing she had a position at the “Most Magical Place on Earth.”
Dodson said she and her fellow Disney College Program members received news they would have to move out and go back to their permanent residencies — no matter how far from home they may be.
“I was absolutely devastated, and I am still in an uncertain state because I had such a solid plan for my life and now it’s all up in the air,” Dodson said. “The unknown is what’s most scary because we don’t know how far away the reopening will be.”
After receiving the news, Dodson — who is originally from Texas — was left without anywhere to live in Orlando as she was currently residing at the Disney dorms. She said she jokingly posted on her Instagram account asking if anyone had a spare couch to sleep on in Orlando.
“I really wanted to stay in Orlando and would have much rather couch surfed until I could go back to my apartment — especially since it was a 16-hour drive to Texas,” Dodson said.
However, her parents believed it was best for her to go back to Texas during this time.
Dodson’s roommate during the program, Amanda Vetrano, 20, said she too had to move back to her permanent residency in New York after she was left with nowhere else to go.
Dodson said the coronavirus turned her life upside down and interrupted her dream internship at Disney.
After being granted her dream internship at Walt Disney World, Dodson said she felt crushed once Disney requested on March 14 that she and all other Disney College Program students pack their bags and leave due to the COVID-19 spread.
The Walt Disney Company had decided to close all parks and resorts worldwide in order to prevent the virus from spreading. The closures began on March 15.
The company is “focused on the health, safety, and wellbeing of guests and cast members,” and the parks “will remain closed until further notice,” according to Disney’s website. The company’s website says it is “in line with direction provided by health experts and government officials.”
As a result, the Disney College Program ended earlier than expected.
According to the Disney Careers website, the Disney College Program aims to help its participants, “gain valuable, on-the-job experience working in [Disney] parks and resorts, and participate in college coursework. ”
Dodson said she and other cast members were very unsure of what would happen as the pandemic grew larger and people began to talk. During her break at 2 p.m. on March 14, Dodson received the email that unexpectedly changed her future plans.
Like many college students, Dodson said she had a plan to achieve her career goal: working at Walt Disney World.
She said that being part of this program was the first step to reaching her dream job as she would be able to add it to her resume and get hands-on experience working with the company.
She also said the skills from her program would be beneficial to her hospitality goals of working with the Walt Disney Company and she does not plan on giving the opportunity up so easily.
“Working with Disney in the program was an absolute dream come true,” Dodson said. “I started Feb. 3, and I was supposed to be there until Aug. 6. I was supposed to have five more months in my program, and it has just been taken away from me.”
Dodson’s roommate, who started at the program at the same time as her, worked with Quick Service Food and Beverage and was also devastated to end her program so early on.
“The program has been a dream of mine since I was 11 [years old],” Vetrano said. “My experience living in Disney was an absolute dream come true, and I absolutely plan on coming back.”
But there is still hope for Dodson and other members. They were reassured in an email, sent on March 15, that Disney was not going to let their Disney College Program members down, because Disney is a place “where dreams come true,” the company’s motto states.
The Disney Program official Twitter tweeted on March 15 stating they were aware that some students “already expressed interest in returning,” and if they had not expressed interest yet, they could fill out a survey.
The tweet included a letter to members which said the company would “reach out to participants that express interest [of returning]” once the company has additional information.
“They assured us multiple times that they will be asking for us back because they are unable to operate without the thousands of college students working there,” Dodson said.
On March 15 — the same day the tweet was sent out and the day after the initial announcement — Dodson received an email with the one-question survey from Disney, and she was quick to respond “yes” as she said she did not want this to be the end of her Disney journey.
Her response could mean having to spend another semester away from UCF and to focus on her internship at Disney.
She said taking the semester off from classes at UCF did not delay her original anticipated graduation.
“As I packed up my apartment that became home in just a few short weeks, I truly felt at the lowest I’ve ever been,” Dodson said.
One of Dodson’s favorite things that the Disney College Program gave her were the friends she made along the way.
Having to split paths so suddenly was unexpected, and she said she will be missing her friends — especially since their time together was cut short. During her time in the program, she said she made friends from all around the world including Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Vetrano agreed that the part of the program that she missed the most was the people and being a part of the magic that she has adored her whole life.
“Luckily, my close friends are all from the United States,” Dodson said. “It is still going to be hard to see each other, but a lot of us have a shared goal of working for the Walt Disney World Company, so I’m hopeful our paths will cross again.”
Dodson said living at Disney had quickly begun to feel like home.
“I have never been as happy as I was when I was living there, and I’ve never felt like I belonged somewhere more than I did when I was at Disney,” Vetrano said.
To commemorate her time at Disney and the friends she made, Dodson and two of her roommates got matching tattoos of their apartment number on their ankles.
The meaning behind the tattoo goes further than just a room number for Dodson.
“I really wanted to get some kind of tattoo to remember the experience, and our apartment number was actually my birthday too,” she said. “So I always thought it was a sign of good luck and it was perfect.”
Dodson said she knows this is not the end of her Disney journey, and she hopes to go back as soon as possible.
Dodson said she stays positive during this time and is comforted by the fact that “Mickey himself told us: the magic is within you, and it always will be.”