Disney Dreamers Academy Class of 2023 and Alumni pose for a group photo. Photo courtesy of Disney

There’s a certain level of magic at Walt Disney World that can barely be explained with words, whether it’s your first or fifth time visiting. What adds to the magic is the passion and a sense of community felt by the young people visiting Disney World as part of the educational mentorship program, Disney Dreamers Academy.

Grammy-nominated singer and the 2023 Celebrity Ambassador Halle Bailey delivers a speech at the commencement ceremony on Sunday, March 26, 2023. Photo by Isaiah Singleton/The Atlanta Voice

What is the Disney Dreamers Academy?

Each spring, 100 young people arrive from all over the country from underrepresented communities across America to the Disney Dreamers Academy, which was started in 2008, with ambition, excitement and hopes for the future. Four days later, they return home with the motivation, guidance, and skills to help make those dreams come true.

The teens were selected from among thousands of applicants to participate in the mentoring program.

Created and hosted by Walt Disney World, the program is designed to broaden career awareness and create opportunities for Black students and teens.The students, along with a parent or guardian, received an all-expense-paid trip to Walt Disney World to participate in the program.

The event also included empowering sessions from a host of celebrities; special once-in-a lifetime surprise opportunities for students; performances from Disney Live Entertainment; and a moving ring ceremony to mark the teens’ special achievement at the culmination of the event.

“Disney Dreamers Academy is an important part of Walt Disney World’s commitment to supporting Black students and teens from underrepresented communities across America, by encouraging the next generation to think big and to carry what they learn back home with them,” said Tracey D. Powell, Vice President of Travel Services/Pricing and Revenue Management and Disney Dreamers Academy executive champion. “We hope to encourage these dreamers to relentlessly pursue their dreams and make a difference in the lives of others.”

Grammy-nominated singer and the 2023 Celebrity Ambassador Halle Bailey delivers a speech at the commencement ceremony on Sunday, March 26, 2023. Photo by Isaiah Singleton/The Atlanta Voice

The Magic of Changing Lives in Four Days

In four days the Dreamers’ passion grows, changes, shifts, and transforms. Many former Dreamers have started small businesses, non-profits, and are pursuing careers in a myriad of professional fields.

Within a short period of time, the Disney Dreamers class of 2023 were exposed to various opportunities from marching in a pre-parade through Magic Kingdom with this year’s celebrity ambassador and Grammy-nominated singer and Atlanta native Halle Bailey.

Bailey will be playing Ariel in the upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”.

 Disney Dreamer Jaden Jenkins, an Augusta, Georgia native, is a two-time MVP on his varsity soccer team and plays on a traveling team. Photo by Isaiah Singleton/The Atlanta Voice

The Dreamers also attended a career academy expose, an empowerment lunch, and an interactive career mentorship workshop deep-dive.

Dreamers were shocked when it was announced Bailey would be their celebrity ambassador. With her new role as Ariel, Bailey is a role model and inspiration for a lot of people in the Black community.

“As a Black woman, taking on this role [of Ariel] is such an important thing to do. I feel like representation is so important for us to be able to see ourselves,” Bailey said. “It changes how we think about our self-worth, confidence, and courage. Even the fact that I was a little girl and I had Tiana, so I’m just grateful to be here with the Disney Dreamers who are phenomenal.”

Also, Dreamers were given the opportunity to participate in an image makeover showcase where they learned about creating their own personal brand and image with fashion designers Jerome Lamaar and Misa Hylton.

Some of the students shared that some of their favorite moments were being able to ride Magic Kingdom’s newest attraction the TRON Lightcycle/Run, Hollywood Studios dazzling pyrotechnics show Fantasmic, and for some visiting the parks for the very first time.

Some examples of Dreamer moments include: two Dreamers who aspire to be filmmakers were surprised by Bailey with a personal invitation to join her on the red carpet at the upcoming world premiere of the live action “The Little Mermaid” in Hollywood. Three Dreamers interested in music careers got a surprise visit from Grammy award-winning artist H.E.R., who gifted each teen an autographed guitar. One student interested in a broadcast career was surprised by ABC’s Good Morning America, which invited the teen to take part in an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the show from its New York studios.

These examples are a few of many who were given the opportunity to experience these once-in-a-lifetime moments. Students were also able to perform and showcase what they had learned during the Be 100 Café for the Senses Showcase.

2023 Disney Dreamers Academy Members from or living in Georgia

Fifteen-year-old Ava Adams was born in Chicago, Illinois, but is currently a freshman at Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Atlanta.

Adams has a passion for the arts, engineering, and animation. Her dream career, she said, is in animation where she can help provide entertainment for others and utilize her artistic skills. When she graduates from high school, she plans to attend Spelman College, SCAD, or Georgia Tech.

“My experience has been good and fun,’ she said. “It’s been interesting to see and meet new people especially in the background I want to do later in life, which is in animation.”

Her reason for applying to the academy was to gain further experience and knowledge of her interests and showcase her artistic abilities.

Adams said one of her favorite parts about the experience was “definitely taking a picture next to Halle Bailey”.

Also, Adams said she wanted to take away opportunities from this experience and try to get her name out towards people who are big in animation.

“With being able to get your name out there, later in life when you’re looking for a career, it’ll be easier to get a career at Disney if you sign up for this because they will follow you throughout you growing up and graduating and it’s important especially if you want to work at Disney,” she said.

Veterans High School junior Zachariah Hickey is from Warner Robins and enjoys serving others and helping people through teaching science. He said he hopes to one day help people through medicine and aspires to be a Flight Surgeon in the Air Force.

Alongside being the Vice President of his junior class and of the Science National Honor Society, Zachariah is also passionate about athletics as he is a competitive swimmer and runner.

He said although they were all busy running around for most of the four days, he felt “pretty good” about his time at the academy.

Hickey said his favorite part about the academy was “meeting all of the young people that are so passionate about what I’m passionate about and so supportive of other’s passions”.

He also said he learned to be more outgoing and forward with what he believes in instead of hiding it.

“I think that others can benefit from it as well,” he said.

A senior at A.R. Magnet School in Augusta, Georgia, Jaden Jenkins said his experience at the Disney Dreamer Academy “was fun”.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life and this is my first time at Disney World too. Visiting the parks have been breathtaking. We went to Hollywood Studios and the Tower Drop [referring to the Tower of Terror Ride] was fun.”

The importance of attending the academy, Jenkins said, is the opportunity to build great connections and see where your future can lead you.

Jenkins said he applied because his sister didn’t get into the academy when she applied.

“Me and my sister have a competitive thing, so I applied and got in. She was happy for me obviously but was like, ‘You’re still not better than me’,” he said.

When he found out the news, he was at a soccer game and his mom called, according to Jenkins.

“My mom called me and told me to look at the news [Good Morning America] and it had the names of the 100 people who were selected,” he said. “I saw my name and said, ‘oh wow’. I was a little bit shocked.”

Jenkins is a two-time MVP on his varsity soccer team and plays on a traveling team. After graduation, Jenkins said he plans to join a D1 college soccer team and play professionally afterwards.

Some of his favorite players include French soccer star Kylian Mbappe and Argentinian World Cup champion Lionel Messi who competed in the 2022 World Cup. Additionally, he is a Youth Leadership graduate and a member of the Youth Board.

Pamela Musungu- Acworth

Ava Flanigan- Morrow

Jordan Adeyemi – Duluth

Pippa Key – Summerville

Kirasten Perkins – Savannah

Erin Shen – Statesboro

Dylan Jones – Smyrna

Tears, motivation, and continuing to dream

On Sunday, March 26, students celebrated the conclusion event with an emotional commencement ceremony at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, which also featured an inspirational speech by this year’s celebrity ambassador, Halle Bailey.

Parents, students, and everyone alike were in tears by the end of the commencement ceremony. It was moving to see how four days could change a conversation, a mindset, or passion of a person.

The biggest lessons Dreamers were left with were to “be yourself, be confident, and close mouths don’t get fed.”

As the academy concluded, Hickey said the experience was “awesome”.

“They [Disney] make you such a well-rounded person and believer in your dreams and it’s been an awesome experience,” he said.

The advice Hickey gave to future Dreamers was to “be yourself”.

“Know what you believe in, stick to it, and push as hard as you can,” he said.

Jenkins said his biggest takeaway from the academy was the deep-dive sessions.

“I really liked the deep dives because I’m in engineering and we got to build a ball drop,” he said.

Adams’ advice to future Dreamers is to “do it”.

“It’s a really great experience and they definitely will help guide you to the career that you want to grow in,” she said. “My biggest takeaway is deep dives since I actually was able to sit next to and meet somebody who’s worked on numerous animations like Mulan and The Princess and the Frog, that was really cool because I want to do something like that.”

For advice, Jenkins said to “go for it”.

“You have nothing to lose, it’s fun and it’s everything. I can’t even put it into words,” he said. “From these four days alone, I am meeting more dreamers and making more connections and friends/mentors I can talk to.”

For more information on how to apply for next year, visit DisneyDreamersAcademy.com.

This article is one of a series of articles produced by The Atlanta Voice through support provided by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to Word In Black, a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media outlets across the country.