University News

The WIU Comm 379 (Disney World Communication Culture) class members and Zanolla (back row, far left in purple hat), Spring 2011, in front of one of the most photographed icons in the world, Disney's Cinderella Castle. Photo ID Kneeling L-R: Jane Ladage, sophomore, non-degree program, Bloomington, IL; Shelby Rogers, sophomore, mathematics major, Naperville, IL; Leah Zanolla. Standing L-R: Instructor David Zanolla; Colleen Krasich, sophomore, communication, Oak Lawn, IL; Andrea Patten, junior, communication, East Peoria, IL; John Felker, senior, political science, Chicago; Tori Jacobsen, senior, New London, IA; and Ethan Knight, senior, theatre-acting, McHenry. Photo courtesy of David Zanolla.
[Download Print-Quality Image]

Study at Disney World with WIU Instructor's "Dream Course"

July 29, 2011

Share |
Printer friendly version

MACOMB, IL – In 2006, Communication Instructor David Zanolla was taking a backstage tour at Walt Disney World in Orlando (FL) when he started to realize that many of the concepts he taught in his classes came to life in the theme parks. Upon returning home, he began to design a supplemental unit for his Communication 130 ("Introduction to Human Communication") classes to share what he had learned.

Fast forward to three years later when the Western Illinois University Centennial Honors College asked faculty for proposals of new classes. Zanolla saw this request as the opportunity to propose his "dream course." This course, called "Disney World Communication Culture," will be offered for the third time in Spring 2012 as COMM 379.

In May 2011, Zanolla was invited to talk about the experiences of the first two years of the course on the web-based "The Season Pass Podcast" ( A direct link is listed at the end of the release.)

"Co-host Brent Young owns a theme park attraction design business, so he knows what he is talking about. This enabled us to have a great conversation about what I was doing in my course," Zanolla said.

The course description reads: "Not only is the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world, it's also a great example of effective communication by a multinational corporation. Through various tours and masterclasses at the resort, participants will learn how an organization of more than 60,000 people creates and maintains an effective culture. In addition, students will explore the layers of nonverbal communication utilized by Disney Imagineers in the process of environmental design."

Applications are now being accepted for the Spring 2012 class, which will be through the communication department, according to Zanolla, who started the working model of this class with Western's Centennial Honors College students.

Listen to a clip from "The Season Pass Podcast" interview with
WIU's David Zanolla and see photos from the course trip to Disney

A Dream Course
Zanolla didn't waste any time accepting the Honors College offer supporting his dream course.

"I had taught this special unit at the end of class in a couple of lecture series, but when I heard about the dream course, I started to refine it, getting feedback from my students each time I made a significant change.

"I told the Honors Council that if I really could have what I wished for, I would love to teach students about Disney World's communication methods and then take them to Orlando to show them, because what better way to apply the material than to be able to immerse yourself in this environment the company created?" Zanolla added.

Permission was granted, and Zanolla's Disney three-credit hour dream course debuted in Spring 2010, with Zanolla packing a 16-week course into the first eight weeks of the semester. Students were instructed in three areas of communication: non-verbal communication/structured environments, organizational culture, and computer-mediated communication/online fan communities. After they learned the basics, the class discussed how they would recognize the communication concepts in the theme parks, resorts and restaurants when they spend eight days at Walt Disney World Resort during spring break.

"Each student was now an entry-level communication researcher, looking at the stories cast members tell, the vocabulary they use and what their way of life says about the organization," Zanolla explained. "It's basically a weeklong research trip aimed at finding out if Disney World puts their words into action. Not surprisingly, the company known for their first-rate customer service delivered on everything we had learned."

During the last six weeks of the semester students work on their final presentations, meeting one-on-one with Zanolla for progress reports on their research projects.

Seeing, Hearing, Experiencing Communication
Eight days at the Walt Disney World Resort "was an invaluable learning experience," said senior John Felker (Chicago), a political science major with an option in American Government and a pre-law minor.

Part of the course requirements during their week at Disney included writing a short report for Zanolla and posting the report on the Disney Dispatch web site. Students also read the book, "The Wonderful World of Customer Service at Disney," by Jeff Kober, who led two masterclasses for the students while at Walt Disney World. (The Disney Dispatch site is at

"One of the first things that struck me about the organization is the idea that the company is in the 'guest experience' business, not the theme park, movie, hotel, etc. business," Felker wrote on Disney Dispatch.

Sophomore mathematics major Shelby Rogers (Naperville, IL) described "how we learned" in her Disney Dispatch post: "Early each day, we had a scheduled learning experience, such as the Keys to the Kingdom tour and a shortened version of Disney World's Traditions course (which all Cast Members must attend). The rest of the day we were given research time in the parks to evaluate how well the service theme ('We create happiness'), service basics (safety, courtesy, show, efficiency), and the Imagineering motto ('Everything Speaks') were put into practice."

"We had the privilege to meet with Dan Cockerell, vice president of EPCOT; Jeff Kober, the author of one of our textbooks; and Jim Korkis, Disney historian and author of "The Vault of Walt." Each of these men have vastly different backgrounds with the company, and the knowledge they shared with us about the parks, cast members, and the history and organizational culture of Disney World was truly enlightening," added Colleen Krasich (Oak Lawn, IL), a sophomore communication sciences major.

The Instructor: David Zanolla
Zanolla has been on the associate faculty in Western Illinois University's Department of Communication since August 2005. He serves as the coordinator of public speaking and teaches introductory courses, as well as works with the First Year Experience (FYE) program. Because of his work with FYE, Zanolla has twice received the student-nominated Honoring Our Professors for Excellence award. Zanolla has been a presenter at the National Communication Association Annual Conference and a co-author of an article in Communication Studies (2008). He earned his bachelor's (2001) and master's (2005) degrees in communication at WIU.


Zanolla's interview on The Season Pass Podcast (May 29, 2011) is at:

Students' and Zanolla's reports, interviews on the Disney Dispatch are at:

Posted By: WIU News (
Office of University Relations