Joshua Sullivan is a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Owensboro Middle School who wants to provide opportunities for his students that become life experiences. In fall of 2010, Sullivan received a flyer about Disney’s Youth Education Services (Y.E.S.). As a lifelong Disney fan who worked at the Magic Kingdom for two years while in college, Sullivan decided this was an opportunity he wanted to offer OPS students. Thus, Project Mickey was born.
Sullivan delved into Y.E.S., an educational outreach program that Disney offers which allows students to use Disney theme parks for real-life, hands-on educational experiences. He created a program he thought would best meet students’ needs.
“I then pitched the program to my principal, superintendent and the school board,” Sullivan said. “Everyone has been very supportive of the program ever since. Our first year, we had 24 students sign-up…and we’ve grown steadily ever since. This year, we have 62 students headed to Florida.”
To participate in Project Mickey, Sullivan said that Owensboro Public Schools’ students in grades 6 through 9 must be nominated by their teachers.
“Each fall, I ask teachers to recommend students based on a variety of traits including interest in learning, an appreciation for education, maturity, effort, leadership and willingness to help others,” Sullivan said.
Based on these recommendations, students and parents are invited to informational meetings and, if the students are interested in the program and their parents are willing to allow them to attend, they apply to participate.
The trip is scheduled for June of each year, with this year’s dates being June 3 – 8. Sullivan said that doing this every year keeps him invigorated as an educator.
“As a teacher, by the end of the school year, you are often exhausted and sometimes crawling to the finish line,” Sullivan said. “But this program lets me get to know a group of students outside of the regular classroom; I love seeing the “ah-ha” moments…it really makes all of the planning work worth it.”
Project Mickey participants are encouraged to help with the planning and to fundraise to offset the costs of the trip.
“Just last month, students were introduced to several Y.E.S. program options, and were allowed to vote on their top five choices,” Sullivan said, adding that, based on student feedback, he selected three courses.
“They also help pick roommates and, depending on the programs selected, can take part in required pre-trip coursework,” Sullivan said. “But a lot of their background knowledge comes from the classes at OMS.”
Char Rhoads, a parent of two students who have each participated in Project Mickey said the students enjoy getting to learn how things work at Disney. She said they are able to have a ride shut down for just their group to have the opportunity to see the behind-the-scenes elements that make the ride work, such as the ghosts in the Haunted Mansion and the visual effects of Space Mountain.
And, oftentimes, the courses go cross-curricular, Sullivan said.
“While we are studying how the animals are cared for at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we also learn about the art and architecture used to make an authentic experience. We learn how to Magic Kingdom Park was designed to take the guest the past, the future, and the lands of make-believe,” Sullivan said. “It is a thoroughly immersive educational experience that let the students learn in a truly unique fashion.”
Sullivan said the students also get to have a lot of fun.
“Throughout the trip, students get plenty of free time to explore the theme parks with their friends,” Sullivan said. “Our chaperones take them park-hopping into the wee hours of the morning and let them have that true Disney experience.”
Olivia Miller, a student who participated said that she enjoyed seeing the behind the scenes and also learned leadership skills while doing fun activities.
“I’ve seen some of the quietest and reserved students burst out of their shell while on this trip,” Sullivan said. “One of my favorite stories is seeing one of our students who had never ridden a roller coaster in her life build up the confidence to try one for the first time. She asked one of our chaperones to go with her and loved it!”
Sullivan’s Project Mickey became so popular that he and the chaperones added another travel experience for older students called Project California.
“Every third year, we take a group of former Project Mickey students to Anaheim, Ca. to participate in Disney Y.E.S. programs at the original Disneyland Park,” Sullivan said. “On that trip, we also tour Los Angeles, Hollywood, working movie studios and other highlights of Southern California.”
Conner Rhoads attended Project Mickey before his eighth-grade year and Project California before his ninth-grade year.
“This was just an awesome experience. I had such a great time,” Conner said. “The classes were really fun and the parks were wonderful. I am so thankful for the experience.”
Stephanie Miller, whose daughter has participated in Project Mickey and Project California said that, as a parent, she was impressed at how well organized and run it was.
“I can only imagine how much work it is to keep a group that large running smoothly,” Miller said. “The kids are well supervised and safe but are allowed some autonomy as long as it is used responsibly and [they] check in at appointed times.”
Sullivan said he tries to keep the cost as low as he can and over the last few years, it has been around $1,400 per person, which covers round trip flights to Orlando, five nights at a Disney Resort hotel, a 5-day Disney Park Hopper ticket, two meals per day, charter bus transportation during their time at Walt Disney World and three Y.E.S. classes.
“I know it is not cheap, but every effort is made to make it as affordable as possible,” Miller said. “Payments are spread out over several months and there are fundraising opportunities. I feel we got a huge bang for our buck.”
The students have one major fundraiser left before their June trip. They are selling Yankee Candle products during the first three weeks of March. Anyone interested in donating can contact a student, or reach out to Sullivan via email to place an order.
“I was lucky to have a family that put an emphasis on travel and life experiences. I am very lucky to have had these experiences and I am so glad to help OMS students do the same thing,” Sullivan said. “I will always remember being a kid and often wondering why all this school stuff mattered. These Y.E.S. programs really help make the classroom content a real-world experience.”