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Coronavirus causes Disney to end internships early, sending 2,200 interns packing

Disneyland guests enjoy a day at the park Jan. 13.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

When Walt Disney Co. closed its theme parks in the U.S. recently because of the growing coronavirus outbreak, the media giant promised its workers they would continue to get paychecks through the end of March.

But more than 2,200 college students and recent graduates who enrolled in Disney’s internship programs at the Anaheim and Florida parks received a more abrupt message: The program is over. You have less than a week to move out of Disney housing.

Interns from throughout the world, participating in an internship that began in January and was scheduled to end in August, were notified Saturday that the program has ended and were told they had until today to move out of apartments arranged by the company.

Interns who traveled from as far as Chile and Australia were left scrambling to get airline tickets home. Some moved in with friends and crammed their belongings into storage units.

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“They didn’t give us any resources or time to get resources,” said one intern who asked to remain anonymous because he hoped to work for Walt Disney Co. in the future. “You’ve got to figure out where to move in a few days.”

Disney park representatives said the short notice to move out was in line with colleges and universities that are facing similar challenges raised by the coronavirus outbreak.

The Disney representatives also pointed to a Facebook post that acknowledged that the decision to end the program caught many participants “off guard.”

“We are basing our decisions on the safety and well-being of our Cast Members and our Guests,” the Facebook post said.

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Universal Studios Hollywood said it hasn’t canceled its spring internship program and continues to pay about a dozen interns.

Across the country, the coronavirus outbreak has forced young Americans to alter their lives in many unexpected ways. College students have been required to complete their classes online, with UCLA and other schools planning to convert their graduation ceremonies to virtual events.

Internships and job fairs that might have helped launch future careers are now on hold. The online review site Yelp has canceled its summer internship. A University of California program for interns in Washington, D.C., recently ended its winter session and suspended its spring session.

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The University of Notre Dame has canceled its summer internship program in Rome and the University of Delaware has nixed its spring study abroad program in Australia.

But the interns in the Disney parks program say they felt their program came to an end too abruptly, with almost no warning and little help from Disney to transition back home.

The response to the news on the Facebook site was mixed, with some readers expressing understanding for Disney’s action and others asking why Disney couldn’t have kept the interns until the parks reopened.

“They have all worked hard and saved their money for this opportunity of a lifetime to be left broken hearted and disillusioned,” one woman wrote on the page.

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An intern from Perth, Australia, who worked at the Orlando, Fla., park selling merchandise, said on a Facebook post that she had to come up with about $2,000 to fly home and could not afford a return flight in the future.

“And I’m heartbroken about having to leave,” Amber Smith said. “This has been an incredible experience. I only wish I could have stayed for the rest of my program.”

Under the internship, college students and recent graduates worked for minimum wage in retail shops, eateries or other positions at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando and at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. In addition to the work, the interns attended workshops, seminars and networking meetings in hopes of preparing for a career with the Burbank-based media giant.

About 2,000 of those interns worked in Orlando and about 200 worked in the Anaheim park. In Anaheim, Disney arranged for housing at an apartment complex near the park, with rent deducted from the interns’ paychecks.

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A similar Disney internship for college students who want to learn about the business side of the company, such as marketing and information technology, is continuing.

Disney offered to pay the interns for the last two weeks of March, refund them for a week of rent and not charge them for rent for the second half of the month.

The intern who asked to remain anonymous said he was able to find temporary housing with family members but knows of at least one international student who has been left scrambling to arrange a place to stay.

“I’m disappointed with the decisions made at this point,” the intern said.

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In its Facebook post, Disney said: “Please know that no one will be without accommodations. We are working with each individual resident to help find the right solution to each unique circumstance.”


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