(Edit: sorry this is so long, haha... I just really do love my job.)
My two cents about the term "underpaid" - I lived on minimum wage at Disney, and lived perfectly comfortably. Is it low pay? Yes... but why do I need more if I'm already living comfortably?
"What kind of fairy-tale bullshit is this?" Well, Goliath... it's the kind you don't believe in. I do. I think the Walt Disney Company, through it's many flaws, creates something special in children and families all over the world. Something that isn't created by McDonald's, since you seem fond of that comparison. And to me, personally, the experience of being a part of creating that something special is the reward in and of itself, and I could not give two shits about the money or the hours. I am a part of the magic that I have wanted to be a part of my entire life. Is Disney feeding me all of these bullshit lines? Of course they are. But regardless of what made me feel this way growing up... I really, truly feel this way. The fact that you don't is why you would never make a good Cast Member.
Having actually been there, I'll very gladly discuss the ups and downs about the College Program, and being a Cast Member in general.
The Walt Disney Company has a good many flaws. Corporate greed, child "brain-washing", etc etc etc... In the Parks, many of these flaws can easily be seen. College Program participants are, for the most part, overworked and underpaid. Like I said, many weeks I worked 55-60 hours/week, and yet I still pretty much lived on Mac and Cheese during my program. The pay could be better, to put it nicely.
The carelessness of executives when it comes to what a guest experience is really like really got to me sometimes. For example, the face characters are pressured and pressured to fit in as many families as they possibly can in one of their set times. This means that many families wait in line for, literally, two hours or more to meet Rapunzel, and Rapunzel, who of course needs to do the best she can to both make the guests happy and to make her bosses happy, interacts with them for 15-30 seconds at the most. It incredibly disheartening, especially knowing that 'Rapunzel' would give anything to be able to slow things down a bit.
Organization and communication within the company is also questionable. There are plenty of times when something big is happening in one area of the park that another area is never notified about. Or sometimes special events are planned that go laughably wrong because of a lack of simple organization. There were MANY, MANY times when I felt there was a much simpler, easier, faster, better way to do something than how it is done at the parks, but people are reluctant to try something new, because "that's the way we do it."
To put it plainly, there are a number of things that are flawed about the Program, and about the Parks. All of this, plus the fact that backstage areas smell like ass.
But despite all this, I would gladly do it all over again - and like I said, I would gladly do it all for free, if I didn't have to make money to survive.
The perks of being a Cast Member are far the superior to the cons. For the most obvious, physical "perk"... you get into all Disney parks FOR FREE. For someone like me, who will never get enough of them, this is really all I need. With the exception of the water parks during certain seasons, I can go hang out and Magic Kindom or Epcot with my friends, completely for free. Plus, I get a certain number of passes for friends or family that are not Cast Members, so I can treat them to a day (or two or three or four) at the Parks. (As a reminder, a one-day ticket to any Disney Park is $86.)
Other monetary perks - every Cast Member gets a discount on all merchandise (20-50%, depending on the type of Cast Member and the time of year). We get a huge discount on things like Disney Cruise Line, or the Adventures by Disney. Plus several other coupons and gifts (we got the "Studio Appreciation" version of the Toy Story 3 blu-ray when the film became such a hit, for example).
All of that is really great. But it is also very obvious.
The experience of simply meeting all the people I met was a huge part of it for me. Like I mentioned to Khonner - I literally met people from all continents, all over the world. And not just met them - I got to get to know them - I'm still friends with many of them and stay in touch with them today. The sheer number of Cast Members is unbelievable, and you get to meet new people every single day.
Similar to this, you get to DO something new every day. While yes, the majority of my job was simply ringing people up at the register... I get to be in a different store all the time, moving around the park. If there is a special event, they take volunteers to help. For Star Wars Weekends, I got to have lightsaber fights with guests for a weekend. Plus all the special little tasks that need doing - "hey we need someone to run and find a _____ for ____" that take you all sorts of places you've never been.
Also, while many, many, MANY, MANYY guests can be a pain the ass... complaining, smelling, being rude, etc... that one guest that stops and says "you know, this place is amazing. I really appreciate what you guys do here. Thank you for making our vacation memorable" makes it all worth it. Seeing families having fun together is a perk in and of itself.
On the College Program, you share an apt. with 1-5 other people. I had a three bedroom apt, so I was living with 5 other guys. While I unfortunately didn't get along all that well with one of them, I've remained close with the rest and they remain some of my best friends.
So all of this is pretty great. But, for me, the true perks are a little more emotional. And I understand that this might be where I lose some of you. Because this is the "fairy tale bullshit" part. But it really is what makes every hour sacrificed, and every penny not earned, completely worth it for me.
When I was younger, I visited Disney World for the first time. I had always wanted to go, just because what kid doesn't want to go? And when we got there, admittedly, I was maybe a little old to "believe" in some of the stuff. And so, some of the rides, or some of the shows, seemed a little lame to me. But I was there with my younger siblings, both of whom were much younger and more apt to truly buy into the "magic". And so throughout the trip, I really saw things through their eyes. And it really was special to me when my little sister got a hug from Cinderella. And it really was special to me when my brother started shouting "Mickey! Mickey!" when he appeared on stage during one of the shows.
But towards the end of the trip, we stayed to watch the fireworks one last time. And after a week full of all this stuff, the message that the fireworks talked about really hit me. A combination of music, lights, stories, and Jiminy Cricket telling me that all my dreams can come true if I just believe in myself - made me really feel something. And that was the first time that I truly felt "Disney Magic".
Fast forward several years, and here I am in the College Program. And the biggest perk for me is seeing when other young kids feel that Disney Magic for the first time. Watching parents tear up as they watch their kids reaction when they see Mickey for the first time is something that really moves me. Being able to help a guest who has lost their character autograph book by saying "hey, don't worry about it. I happen to be friends with those characters. Why don't I go round them up and I'll have them sign a new book for you, and I'll send it to your hotel room for you." And then doing just that, knowing that I've saved a lot of stress for the parents, and I've kept the "magic" real for the child. "You know Mickey??" kids say.
I could go on and on about examples of "Disney Magic" - I see it everyday. From something small like helping a guest find the exact Mickey shirt that they've been searching for their last three vacations here, to bigger things like organizing a meet and greet with a certain character for a "Make a Wish" foundation guest, because meeting that character was literally their dying wish. It's something real, and it can't be explained to someone that just... doesn't get it. To someone that thinks there is such a thing as "fairy tale bullshit". In my book, fairy tales are real and I not only watch them happen every day, but I get to be a part of them sometimes.
Watching the firework show Wishes is still guaranteed to make me cry, and I still feel that "Magic" in my heart every time.
Call it fairy tale bullshit if you want, but please acknowledge that there are plenty of those such as myself that really do believe in it.
EDIT: I'm going to have to ask that nobody try and "out-do" me with reasons as to why my logic is flawed or what have you. There's not point in trying to argue something like this, as it really just comes down to some people feel the same way I do about "Disney" and about the parks and the job, and others just don't. I won't try and argue to prove I'm "right".
EDIT 2: Another perk I meant to mention - the fact that when you start work at Disney, so many avenues of opportunity open up within the company. Because of it, I've now been invited multiple times to Walt Disney Animation Studios to meet with the Talent Development crew who hires interns, and I will hopefully be interning there this summer. It's been my dream to work at the studio ever since visiting the parks that first time, and now here I am, possibly only a couple months away. That's all thanks to the program.