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Students learn from behind-the-scenes at Disney World

Mar 6, 2020
View more photos from the Disney World trip.
View more photos from the Disney World trip.

KOKOMO, Ind. – A Walt Disney World vacation is supposed to be a magical experience, in a place where reality is suspended, and dreams really do come true.

More than 50 Indiana University Kokomo students gained a backstage view at how the magic happens, with a working trip to the Florida resort.

While they had fun in the theme parks, students also learned how the company that sets the industry standard in hospitality crafts its visitor experience, according to Heather Kennedy-Eden, assistant professor of hospitality and tourism management.

“They had the opportunity to experience it and see how the things we learned in class are applied in an actual setting,” she said. “They see the details, they see the service level, they experience it, and then they can analyze it and see if it actually lived up to the hype.”

Students also participated in Disney classes in leadership and teamwork, and toured the parks with leaders who showed them the tricks to creating a world-class experience, factoring in management and human resources, security and safety procedures, and memory making. 

Freshman Ally Weise said she had been to Disney World several times as a child, but had a different view on it after her visit as a criminal justice student.

“I have so much more respect for it now, because I know what everyone has to do to make the magic happen,” the Kokomo resident said. “To see a huge tourist empire, with thousands of people from all different countries, and how they have to keep everyone safe, it takes a lot of work. There’s no way I would have learned that from a book.”

Samuel Garcia-Lopez considered the parks through the viewpoint of a psychology major — especially in the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction. Though his group had to get up before 6 a.m. to be in line to get in, the experience was worth the wait, he said, noting that the themed area is designed in such a way visitors can believe they are truly in the Star Wars galaxy.

“That was the best ride in the parks, hands down,” said Garcia, from Monticello. “The little details they provided throughout the time you waited made you feel immersed in the movies. Everywhere you looked, there wasn’t a rock out of place, or a component that wasn’t supposed to be there.”

He added, though, that he and other psychology students would like to see Disney support its cast members’ mental health, because guests can get stressed and lash out at them.

Alexis Mathias, Converse, and other sociology students considered how a trip to the resort is an autobiographical experience, looking at the Disney influences in their own lives leading up to the trip, and how placement of photographers, wearing of matching shirts, and purchase of specific souvenirs, such as mouse ears, are all part of the experience.

They also considered the economic impact of a Disney trip on the average American family, because of how it is marketed as an essential part of childhood.

The best part of the experience, however, was making connections with other students — especially those outside her major, because she might not have met them without going on the trip.

“There was a sense of community, because we had this shared experience to bring us closer together,” Mathias said, “You become great friends afterwards.”

Students of all majors also learned about leadership, according to Kennedy-Eden.

“They learned a lot about how Walt Disney led his company, and was a visionary,” she said. “In their Disney classes, they learned about him and about other famous leaders, then they analyzed their styles and see how they exhibit different leadership characteristics. They learn that great leaders often have different ways of doing things, but they can still produce successful results. There isn’t just one way to lead.”

The trip was part of the IU Kokomo Experience and You, or KEY program, which provides students chances to connect with people and participate in real-world experiences.

Additional faculty who led the trip included Kelly Brown, associate professor of criminal justice and homeland security; Kelly Fisher, lecturer in criminal justice and homeland security; Kathryn Holcomb, associate professor of psychology; Stephanie Medley-Rath, assistant professor of sociology; Mark Meng, assistant professor of hospitality and tourism management; Gloria Preece, assistant dean of the School of Business; and Adam Smith, associate professor of management.

Indiana University Kokomo celebrates 75 years as north central Indiana’s choice for higher education.

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