LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Dan Cockerell spent his time as a Walt Disney World college intern checking guests into their hotel rooms, working as a custodian and parking cars. He says the experience 16 years ago has been useful in his current job as general manager of the Disney All Star Resort.
Each year, 8,000 students come to Disney World to work as six-month college interns in one of the largest internship programs in the country. The interns make up a significant portion of Disney World's 55,000-person work force. They learn about customer service and absorb Disney's hospitality culture.
"It's very different for the students from working at the local mall," said Kristi Breen, manager of college and international recruiting at Disney World. "It's training that I think will stay with someone forever."
But aside from giving interns valuable experience, the program is a relatively cheap source of labor for Disney and sometimes worries the unionized workers, although union officials approved the program when it began almost 25 years ago.
"None of them are paid properly," Ed Chambers, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 1625, said of the college interns. "They're like indentured slaves ... They live on Disney property. They eat Disney food. They take Disney transportation."
Most of the college interns earn $6.25 an hour, well below the more than $11 an hour pay for a veteran employee performing the same tasks. Interns also don't receive any pension or health care benefits like regular workers.