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Walt Disney World interdisciplinary student engagement trip offers “magical” experience

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Disney 2019

During the spring semester, an interdisciplinary group of students embarked on a weekend educational trip to Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida for a behind-the-scenes look at the iconic cultural destination. The result was a transformative educational experience that offered real-world applications of coursework across all disciplines represented and enhanced the Penn State and Walt Disney World relationship.

Organized and chaperoned by Kendall Mainzer, engagement and career coordinator in the College of Arts and Architecture, 19 students from various majors, including architecture, landscape architecture, graphic design, theatre, engineering, risk management, communications and IST, attended workshops created with the goal of analyzing leadership, design and production within the Disney parks.

The trip was sponsored by the Department of Landscape Architecture and the Arts Ambassadors, but Mainzer’s deep-rooted connection to Walt Disney World was the catalyst behind the educational excursion. Starting as an intern at Disney in 2004, she would eventually move to a position as cast member and worked her way into a leadership and special operations role before coming to Penn State in 2014.

While at Disney, she facilitated a Youth Educational Series offering for high school students that engages with the theme parks to help the students understand Disney operations concepts related to physical science. After coming to Penn State, she learned that Disney developed a similar leadership series for college students and jumped at the opportunity to organize Penn State’s participation and to offer the experience to students from all disciplines.

“This was an incredible opportunity to understand what’s behind the magic and how this company does such an amazing job training tens of thousands of people to produce a seamless operation,” Mainzer said. “Considering the magnitude of the daily production, it was such a beautiful thing to have our students see their chosen field of study implemented across the parks in an interdisciplinary way.”

For two days, Penn State students attended workshops and tours that offered hands-on integration with behind-the-scenes access to Disney leadership practices in areas such as costume production and Epcot’s World Showcase attraction. The workshops included a program called “Design Thinking, Disney Style.” Building upon Mainzer’s work as an instructor of AA 297, Magic by Design, which explores design elements of Disney theme park productions, the program offered students the opportunity to engage in lively discussions that related Disney practices to their field of study.

Gabriela Rojo, who graduated in May with a bachelor of architecture degree, was part of the trip. Aside from the inherent joy that comes with any trip to Disney, Rojo’s experience behind the scenes capped off her undergraduate career at Penn State in a practical and impactful way that she said will propel her into the next phase of her education.

“It was the best experience I had at Penn State because I had the opportunity to feel like a kid again and get behind-the-scenes information on how the magic is created for everybody,” Rojo said. “It’s my dream to become a Disney Imagineer one day so I can help create this magic for other people. Storytelling is at the base of everything Disney does and that’s what I love about it.”

The transformative nature of the experience wasn’t exclusive to Rojo. Throughout the experience, students from every major approached Mainzer to describe how they saw elements of their education applied all throughout the property. One landscape architecture student told Mainzer that while he knew that landscape architecture was an important profession, the trip made him realize "it's actually everything." 

“To see the students connecting across disciplines, demonstrating pride in their chosen fields and seizing opportunities to share their perspectives and knowledge with one another, was one of the greatest moments in my professional experience at Penn State,” Mainzer said. “The richness of this experience made it clear that this relationship with Walt Disney World offers a unique opportunity for students to see their education applied in a world-class organization and we hope to grow our connection to a truly magical place.”

Any student interested in participating in future experiences at Walt Disney World or adding AA 297 to their course work can contact Kendall Mainzer at krm22@psu.edu.