They’re making a living making magic. And now, Disney is making its 30,000-plus local hourly employees a bargain: Commit to college, and we’ll cover the cost. 

This summer, Fullerton College joined Cal State Fullerton as two of the latest higher education partners in Disney’s Aspire program. The new collaboration brings dozens of new degree options directly to Orange County cast members’ backyard – with Mickey footing the entire tuition bill.

“It's incredibly validating to our mission and commitment to students that Disney approached us as a partner,” says Lisa McPheron, Director of Campus Communications at Fullerton College. “The Aspire program is by far the most scaled-up partnership Fullerton College has with Disney.”

While proximity made the alliance a no-brainer, it was Fullerton College’s local reputation and capacity for fast, focused programs that sealed the deal. As the first California community college to join Aspire, Fullerton delivers 70 new, easy-to-access programs, affording Disney’s student-employees more options than ever.  

“Flexibility and convenience are core to the Disney Aspire program model,” says Chris Trout, vice president of Enterprise Learning and Development at The Walt Disney Company. “We’ve heard from our employees that when they make the decision to return to school that they want it to be at a place they already know and love.” 

Aspire represents a quantum leap in the ongoing collaboration between Disney and Fullerton College, which has been training theme park technicians and machinists through Disney-funded cohort programs for years. The genesis, according to Trout, was the need to cultivate a consistent pathway for cast members to develop cutting-edge skills and evolve their careers right along with the industry. 

“The programs we offer in our catalog are strategically aligned with anticipated future of work trends, helping to set our graduates up for more tangible career outcomes,” says the Disney rep.

According to McPheron, Fullerton College’s unique offerings will lead directly to bigger paychecks for program grads, while costing them nothing more than time and effort. 

“These programs were developed in partnership and were responsive to the professional development needs of cast members to help them advance to more technical and higher paying positions at Disneyland Resort,” she predicts.

As a versatile two-year institution with a reputation for responding to workforce demands, Fullerton College offered Aspire a benefit far beyond convenience. With proven pathways in business, technology, media and more, Aspire students can specialize in any aspect of the business they choose, from business and HR to marketing, hospitality, and even Imagineering. “They can pursue whatever path they’re passionate about,” touts Trout. 

That promise includes everything from short-term job training to a master’s degree, all free of charge and fully accessible after 90 days of employment. With Fullerton College and three new four-year colleges on board as of July 2022, the program is looking to add to the 13,000 full- and part-time employees currently enrolled. 

Launched in 2019, Aspire has been especially effective in presenting new opportunities to traditionally underserved Californians. Currently, students of color account for about half of current program cohorts, making Fullerton College’s status as a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) an important factor in Disney’s decision. “It just made sense,” says Trout.

“This partnership has the potential to create social mobility and career advancement for thousands of Disney cast members,” adds McPheron. 

The Aspire program promises more than just access. Thanks to an essential partnership with career connection platform Guild, students are guided and supported every step of the way, with online access to advising, resume-building, “soft skills” and more. Especially valuable is the “Success Coaching” aspect, which connects students to one-on-one assistance with time management, motivation, study habits and more. For many adults just dipping their toe into higher education for the first time, that unique resource can be a game-changer.

“Oftentimes, working adults are balancing far more life commitments than meets the eye,” explains Jonathan Marek, Senior Vice President of Employer Partnerships at Guild. “Success coaching is important to ensure working adult learners have wrap-around support from enrollment through graduation.”

Guild has helped Disney build the Aspire program from the ground up, operating on a forward-thinking philosophy that empowers both employees and employers to flourish in the present while keeping an eye on the future. So far, Disney has spent about $150 million to fund what it hopes will be a self-sustaining pipeline for progress and upward mobility in its workforce. 

“Disney was one of the first organizations to make a deep investment in these things in order to create a culture of opportunity,” praises Marek. “Disney Aspire has generated incredible impact for Disney cast members and their communities in California and beyond.”

For Trout, a graduate of Monroe Community College in upstate New York, the opportunity to spread the college dream to more Southern Californians is personal. 

“I attended a community college and have felt the strong impact every day since graduation in both my personal and professional life,” he reflects. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the education I got.

“Being able to offer something similar to employees is so rewarding.”