The 2023 Disney Dreamers Academy took place March 23-26, 2023 at Walt Disney World. Each spring, 100 young people from all walks of life gather for the Academy to get energized by mentors, expand their horizons at career workshops, develop skills like interviewing and dressing for success, and have a little fun along the way. All provided at no cost for them and a parent or guardians including airfare, hotel and park tickets. The Academy is open to high school students between 13-19.
I knew next to nothing about the Disney Dreamers Academy going into this event. I was invited as media and was able to observe a lot of what occurred. Nothing I saw was presented to the media (other than some interview opportunities), rather we were able to be present at many of the events that were held for the Dreamers. As a result, I learned a lot about the Academy, its place within Disney and, of course, the Dreamers themselves. Here are some of the highlights.
Passion Within the Company
Spending three days at the Disney Dreamers Academy, one thing that became very clear was how important the Academy is to the company. Yes, there were corporate sponsors and yes, it was held on Disney property, but I can’t imagine this event didn’t cost Disney a fortune. But
beyond that, it’s evident how important the Academy is to many within the company.
Event emcee Princeton Parker was a Dreamer himself many years ago. He now works for Disney in the Yellow Shoes department and his passion was front and center every time he spoke.
Also with us throughout the event was Tracey Powell, the Executive Champion of the Disney Dreamers Academy within Disney and she was with us throughout the weekend bringing her passion as well.
Walt Disney World Resort President Jeff Vahle also was in attendance and spoke, but my favorite moment was this one, prior to the first day, when he was out meeting and taking pictures without any fanfare. I just overheard someone mention it and got out in time to snap this.
And even something as seemingly simple as this HBCU Band Leader Mickey is done with care, as the Disney on the Yard program, which celebrates and benefits Historically Black Colleges and Universities, is used to make sure Mickey’s looks and moves are accurate.
And finally, the presentation of the “Hero of the Year” Award to former Walt Disney World President, George Kalogridis. His introduction made it clear that he cared deeply for this program with many quiet contributions of time and effort to help make it what it has become.
One of the big highlights for the Dreamers was undoubtedly the celebrity involvement. But what struck me is how much being around the Dreamers seemed to mean to the celebrities themselves.
HER spoke about some of the advice she gave to them – the importance of not focusing on one thing too soon and the importance of taking risks.
Marsai Martin talked about speaking to them as someone who is only a couple of years older than they are and the special connection that gave her.
Celebrity Ambassador Hally Bailey, in her closing remarks, spoke on the challenges she faced after being cast as the Little Mermaid. She told the Dreamers “who are you? … Whether someone is supportive or not, do you know who you are? Did I accept this role for all good things? Do I see it as a blessing?” Good questions for anyone to ask themselves during times of adversity.
Most of the Dreamers’ education came in breakout sessions that the media did not get to see but for a brief few minutes. But even in that short time I was able, in the session I watched, to see a large number of Imagineers gathered with tons of props begin to give their group some hands-on instruction that so many would love to have the opportunity to receive.
I also had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with three of the Dreamers and came away very impressed:
I also loved how the Dreamers were celebrated on the final night. Every group got to give a presentation, not just the arts and entertainment, but everyone. We saw singers, poets and actors, but we also heard how a group put on a mock trial and how another group created an animatronic. It was wonderful to see everyone have a chance in the spotlight regardless of their pursuit.
The greatest joy I had the whole time was seeing the Dreamers in the parks. I think it’s important to remember these are young people from all over the country. I would guess most of them have only dreamt of going to Disney World up to this point in their lives. And here they were. I saw the joy on their faces as they were a part of the pre-parade, then watched some of them anxiously try to find a spot to watch the parade itself. Everywhere I’d go in the parks I’d see small groups of Dreamers in their purple t-shirts having a great time. But I think my favorite memory is seeing Fantasmic! I was seated a couple of rows behind them, and during the new Heroes segment, hearing their loud cheers as their favorite heroes appeared (Tiana was the loudest) is something I’ll always remember.
The Disney Dreamers Academy is now 15 years old. I appreciated seeing how so many former Dreamers return to help out the next generation. And, of course, former Dreamer Princeton Parker now works for Disney and emceed the entire event.
I also loved how Disney chose to end the event. The final day was a breakfast and it included a moment where the parents of the Dreamers were honored. We were all reminded of the sacrifice parents had to make so that these children could have opportunities like this. The Dreamers then met up with their parents who handed them their graduation rings as they shared some very emotional hugs. I watched this event somewhat detached as a reporter. But in recounting it later on a YouTube live stream, the emotion hit me more directly, especially being a parent myself. Parenting is often a thankless job, and that’s fine, we chose it. But I’m so glad, during this period when so much of the attention is on the Dreamers, Disney made sure to take a moment to have the Dreamers recognize and thank their parents for all they’ve done.
The 2023 Disney Dreamers Academy was something I’ll never forget. But far more importantly, it’s something 100 Dreamers and their families will never forget, something they’ll take with them throughout their lives. And I appreciate The Walt Disney Company even more than I already did for continuing to make it happen..