One year ago, The Walt Disney Company’s groundbreaking education investment program, Disney Aspire, began turning dreams into reality for eligible cast members and employees who do the same every day for guests and fans around the world. Disney Aspire, the most comprehensive program of its kind, launched with a five-year, $150 million investment to create new opportunities for the Company’s hourly employees, enabling them to pursue their educational goals and put their career dreams within reach—whether that means learning a trade, growing their language skills, earning a high school diploma or earning a college or master’s degree.
In the program’s first year, more than 40% of the 90,000+ eligible hourly employees have taken the first step to sign up to participate in the Disney Aspire program and more than 8,000 employees and cast members have enrolled in classes.
The program’s esteemed network of nonprofit and fully accredited universities and learning providers has also expanded, as part of Disney’s continuing commitment to meet employees’ needs. With the recent announcement that the University of Arizona joined Disney Aspire, participants now have 11 schools to choose from, including University of Florida, University of Central Florida, Valencia College, University of Denver and Brandman University, to name just a few—a larger selection of schools and learning providers than offered by many other corporate education programs. With nearly 300 academic paths now available to Disney Aspire students, the number of degree and program offerings has doubled since launch and includes additions based on employee feedback, such as nursing and a greater number of master’s degree options.
“With Disney Aspire, we are helping employees create the futures they imagine for themselves,” said Jayne Parker, senior executive vice president and chief HR officer, The Walt Disney Company. “Through our growing list of Disney Aspire network schools and programs, we are strengthening our commitment to support our more than 90,000 eligible employees’ and cast members’ education and career goals.”
The vast array of possibilities available to participants is just one factor that sets Disney Aspire apart from leading corporate education programs. Employees who enroll incur no tuition cost whatsoever; 100 percent of tuition is paid for upfront by Disney, and required books and fees are reimbursable. Disney’s commitment also includes grossing-up participating employees’ wages to account for taxes withheld for education benefits in excess of $5,250 annually. Disney Aspire offers maximum choice and flexibility, enabling employees to pursue courses of study that are related to their current roles or explore completely new fields. Participants are also under no obligation to stay at Disney after they’ve completed their degree or certificate.
Anaheim-based Global HR Operations Associate Krista Ledbetter welcomes new cast members to Disney every day as part of her role—and she’s also a Disney Aspire student, working toward a Bachelor of Science in Organizational Management. When she speaks to new cast members about the potentially life-changing program, they often tell her it sounds too good to be true. Ledbetter assures them, “You just have to be ready to do the work. That’s the only catch.”
Another significant difference between Disney Aspire and other programs are the cast members themselves. More than 40 percent of Disney’s eligible hourly employees have signed up for Disney Aspire to date—a number that is significantly higher than other corporate education programs. Disney Aspire participants are the program’s best ambassadors, and their enthusiasm and successes have inspired their co-workers to reach for their own dreams as well. Ryan Pragano, an attractions coordinator at Walt Disney World, sailed through the Penn Foster High School Completion Program in record time and is now enrolled in the Disney Aspire College Start Program, with an eye toward pursuing a bachelor’s degree on his journey toward a career in Human Resources. Pragano’s experience has motivated several of his fellow employees to enroll in the program—including his father, a longtime Disney cast member now following his dreams alongside his son. “You never know who you will inspire on your journey. It is incredible to see so many cast members, including myself and my father, going after their dreams and achieving them,” Pragano says. “It’s an honor to be a part of such an amazing program that gives cast members opportunities to enhance their futures.”
Disney Aspire has been designed for busy adults who may be balancing home, family and work obligations while pursuing their education. Convenience for employees was top of mind, and the program offers many online courses of study. Support, including personalized coaching, is built into the program from application through graduation. For Global HR Operations Associate Patrick Defrese, that began when he completed a self-assessment tool at the start of his Disney Aspire journey. “You look at all the different things going on in your life—all of your different commitments—to help you see that you actually can arrange your schedule to do this,” says Defrese, who is now just about six months away from receiving a master’s degree in Human Resources Management from the Nebraska-based Bellevue University’s online school.
Like many “Aspirers,” Yolanda Flores, an usher at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, California, has found invaluable resources that extend beyond her coursework as she pursues her studies online and re-learns how to be a student after a long break. While she completes a bachelor’s degree in Leadership and Organizational Studies via the University of Denver’s online degree program, Yolanda taps into a robust online community comprised of Disney cast members and other students in her program. “You guide each other,” she explains.
And at Disney’s Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World, Disney Aspire participants have a new way to connect and encourage each other, as well as a quiet space where they can go to learn and complete their schoolwork. Recognizing how many of the resort’s cast members have embraced the Disney Aspire program, the leadership team at the Contemporary Resort asked their colleagues how they could help. As a result of their feedback and suggestions, a dedicated study space is now available exclusively to Disney Aspire students. Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger recently joined the Contemporary Resort leadership team and cast members to celebrate its opening.
Disney Aspire’s potential to change lives resonates across the Company’s hourly workforce, as well as with applicants who report that the program weighed heavily in their decision to apply for a position at Disney. “This is an amazing commitment that Disney is making in all of us,” Ledbetter says. “I think it shows that the Company really cares about all of our employees and cast members, and they truly want to help us achieve our goals and our dreams—no matter what they are.”
Visit Aspire.Disney.com to learn more.