Cool Class: Maymester in Disney World

Behrend students learn how the magic of Disney is created and perpetuated.

Photo of the castle at Disney World by Penn State

Many students taking AMST/ENGL 105 love Disney so much, says Penn State Behrend English lecturer Erin Dick, that it can be challenging to get them to think critically about an institution that has had such a tremendous influence on American society. AMST/ENGL 105 doesn’t aim to shatter the magic of their childhood: The course, say Dick and co-instructor Anne Campbell, a lecturer in speech communications, is designed to help students understand how that magic is created and perpetuated. It gives students a thorough look at the inner workings of Disney—its unique culture and the many attributes that have assured the success of this American institution.

This Maymester is the first time that students—a group of 15 from different campuses—are traveling to Disney World since the pandemic (“we were the last group there in 2020 before they shut down,” says Dick, “we were there until Saturday and on the plane when they shut down on the Sunday.”) At Disney’s Imagination Campus in Orlando, they will take classes taught by veteran Disney employees on subjects including teamwork, leadership, business, immersive storytelling, and technology of the Disney parks, before reconvening with Dick and Campbell for group discussions and to work on class projects.

The instructors also received a grant from Behrend’s Janet Neff Center for Manners and Civility, so the class will be discussing civility in the Disney context. “Students will be asked to define civility on their own. Then they’ll pick a topic that explores the way Disney promotes civility to maintain Disney’s culture and values. Possible topics can include engineering of line-waiting at Disney, Disney’s Response to Crises, dress code of employees and guests, or DEI in Disney,” Campbell says.

The class always gives students food for thought, says Dick. “I ask them to list all the companies that Disney owns and the list takes up an entire board.  Many students do not realize what a monopoly the Disney company is and how they have influenced our morals, values, and beliefs throughout history. Most students leave the class with a different perspective on Disney—even as their love for the iconic theme park remains intact, and the obvious highlight of the class is their five-day premium park pass."