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WIU Students Study 'Happiest Place on Earth'

Apr 14, 2014

Disney World isn’t just a vacation destination. Some students from Western Illinois University will be visiting the amusement parks to satisfy a class requirement.

The Disney World Communication Culture 2013 class at Disney World.
Credit David Zanolla

Western’s eight week course, Disney World Communication Culture focuses on Disney's corporate communication structure, procedures and practices. The class culminates with a week long trip to Walt Disney World in Florida.

This will be David Zanolla’s sixth time teaching the course. Zanolla said venturing outside of the classroom provides students with a unique experience.

“We’ve learned about it in the books and that’s fantastic. But let’s go down and do what’s basically a large scale research project,” Zanolla said.

The week-long Disney World trip has a $1,800 price tag for students. The cost covers passes to all of Disney’s parks, along with lodging, meals and transportation to and from the airport in Florida. Students do have to pay for their airplane ticket out of pocket.   

Zanolla said the students have free time every evening. But he said the trip isn’t a vacation.  

“So we have pretty good, long 12 hour days,” Zanolla said. “It’s a location most people probably wouldn’t think about learning. You think about going to the Disney parks, and it’s ‘I’m going to get pictures with Mickey and the princesses. I’m going to go on roller coasters and I’m going to eat ice cream bars’ and that stuff is all part of it. But the idea is to understand how much of it goes into all of those things happening very intentionally as a culture and so that’s what I want them to look at and hopefully open their eyes to.”

Credit TSPR's Curtis Bisbee

The elective course was first offered as a class in the WIU Honor’s Program and is now housed within Western’s Department of Communication. Zanolla says the class’ typical enrollment is about a dozen students including not only communication majors and Disney fans but also those majoring in hospitality or tourism.

“It’s interesting for the students to learn that if that's a company they’re interested in working with you don’t just have to wear mouse ears and want to work at a theme park. You have so many other opportunities at a company that big,” Zanolla said.

Western Illinois is the only university to offer a class that focuses on Disney’s communication culture. Many universities and colleges have Disney courses focusing on the film division. But Zanolla said he believes Disney can be an educational resource for more than media studies.

“We are really in an experiential learning phase. I think people are starting to understand that college students learn a lot better if they can experience and they can get their hands around whatever it is that they’re learning, said Zanolla. “The on campus learning combined with the travel learning is just a top notch experience.”

In past years, the trip to Disney has coincided with Western’s spring break. This year the class will be offered earlier in the year so students will visit Disney World in January when Zanolla says the parks should be less crowded.