UNC-CH students and alumna reflect on Disney College Program experiences

By Anna Neil

While Jade Earnhardt did own items essential to a university student’s wardrobe, such as a school spirit shirt and basketball jersey, she made just as much use of a floor length, bubblegum pink dress during her time as a UNC-Chapel Hill student.

This easily distinguishable frock – with sheer pink sleeves, an off-the-shoulder neckline and a crown adorned with blue jewels – belonged to Princess Aurora, a character Earnhardt grew to know during her time in the Disney College Program.

Earnhardt, a UNC-CH alumna who graduated in spring 2022, spent two semesters in Orlando, Florida working at Walt Disney World Resort.

The Disney College Program allows students to work full time at Disney World, typically in a restaurant or gift shop. However, Earnhardt dreamed of landing a role as a face character since her eighth grade trip to the parks.

“I was just watching the little girls looking at princesses and just the gleam in their eyes, and I was like, ‘I want to do that.’ And my mom was like, ‘Yeah, that would be so fun’. But I was like, ‘No, I literally want to do that,’” Earnhardt said.

Auditioning for her dream job

Earnhardt auditioned to be a face character – a character who does not wear a mask – three times in high school. By the time she entered her final audition the summer before her freshman year of college, the casting directors already knew her name.

Earnhardt did not hear back from the casting directors before school started, instead launching into her career as a UNC-CH student. However, as she sat in Davis Library during an ordinary October day, a ding in her email inbox alerted her that she had been selected to become part of Princess Aurora’s story.

“Does that mean you’re leaving?” Earnhardt’s roommate Nikki Salazar asked.

“I guess it does,” she responded.

Disney Auditions casts face characters based not only on performance, but the auditionee’s height and physique. This selectiveness makes it common for character prospects to go through the casting process and never hear back, Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt’s Disney career begins

With only one semester at UNC-CH under her belt, Earnhardt set out for Disney World to live alone in Florida. She was only 19 years old.

“A lot of people thought I was insane for leaving my freshman year,” Earnhardt said. “Because basically, if you want to study abroad or anything, you do that your sophomore year, never your freshman year.”

Just as Earnhardt had waited years to be cast, guests at the parks had waited just as long to meet the beloved Princess Aurora. On her first day, a 5-year-old girl in a matching pink dress offered her blanket to the princess as a gift.

“I was doing the twirl, and I was just looking around. And this little girl comes up from the back and just rams into me,” Earnhardt said. “She’s like, ‘Princess Aurora! You’re my favorite princess. I’ve waited 6 years and I’m 5 years old.’”

A range of student opportunities

Tucker Watson, a UNC-CH junior majoring in sports administration, completed the Disney College Program during the second semester of his sophomore year. Unlike Earnhardt, he attended to learn about the Walt Disney Company as a business, hoping to one day own a company himself.

Watson spent his semester selling lightsabers and droids at Galaxy’s Edge, a Star Wars-themed gift shop in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Although Watson was focused on the inner workings of the business, he found opportunities to immerse himself in the magic.

“We had a whole day of training that was just based off of coming up from our stories of living on the land and stuff like that,” Watson said. “And so that was really, really cool getting to kind of immerse yourself into Star Wars and kind of become a character.”

Watson attended the Disney College Program alongside UNC-CH junior Taryn Knudsen, a nursing major and friend of Earnhardt’s. Knudsen appreciated the diverse environment at the parks, as it was different from the small town she grew up in.

“Within Disney World, you have so much diversity and you’re gonna come into contact with every different kind of person that there possibly is,” Knudsen said. “And so, I think learning about different cultures and perspectives while we were there was really important for me.”

Knudsen worked at Amorette’s Patisserie in Disney Springs, where she made crepes and educated customers on their pastry offerings. In her free time, she enjoyed riding Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster and meeting Cinderella, another princess Earnhardt grew to know.

Logistics behind the Disney magic

Earnhardt refers to herself as a friend to Princess Aurora and Cinderella, terminology that Disney employees use to separate themselves from the characters and avoid suggesting that someone is simply dressing up. These meticulous efforts protect the magic.

Earnhardt’s process to put on her dress and accessories and make it to her set location took a total of one hour. With this fast turnaround, she would often put on her foundation makeup before coming to work.

Outside of twirling across Disney’s Magic Kingdom to greet guests, Earnhardt took several academic courses while in the program. One of these classes was about marketing, connecting directly to her advertising and public relations major at UNC-CH.

Bidding farewell to Princess Aurora

After her semester in the Disney College Program, Earnhardt was hired to work seasonally and stayed in Florida for the remainder of 2019. When she came home on Dec. 24, she expected to see Disney World again in the spring. Instead, she and approximately 28,000 others were laid off due to the pandemic.

“I feel like I didn’t really appreciate my last shift, you know,” Earnhardt said. “I was like, ‘Oh, last shift and then my flight is tomorrow,’ you know. I was just kind of going through the motions just because I was just so used to it.”

By 2020, Earnhardt was back at UNC-CH, wearing school spirit shirts and her basketball jersey. Since graduating, she has traded this wardrobe for a blazer, working as an account strategist at a Colorado marketing agency. And while she no longer sees Princess Aurora every day, Earnhardt will always remember walking with her “once upon a dream.”

Edited by: Mackenzie Frank and Jane Durden