When our daughter KeiLana was selected for Disney Dreamers Academy (DDA) in 2018, we honestly had no idea what to expect. I mean, with my experiences with Disney as a cast member and a guest, I already knew it would be amazing. I didn’t realize that my expectations were not even going to be close to the caliber of our actual experience. We were blown away by the generosity of Disney, Steve Harvey, Essence and the many brands that came together for these teens. They really went all out and created a magical, once in a lifetime experience for everyone in attendance (yes, even us parents/chaperones)! Disney pulled out all the bells and whistles, and for us it was extra special since this was also KeiLana’s first airplane ride EVER (we got her wings!) and collectively our first trip to Florida and Walt Disney World (WDW)!

Grab a beverage and get comfy because I’m going to share my experience and some fun and important things that, as a parent or chaperone, you probably want to know if your teen is selected to attend on-site for a future DDA event! 

Don’t Worry About a Thing

When Disney says you are receiving an all-inclusive trip – let me tell you that is exactly what they mean. Our food, airfare, accommodations, teen’s swag – yep, all there. The Disney Events team handled everything on our behalf. For food we were given dining cards for meals and snacks in the park, and had a combination of “sit down” and grab and go meals provided each day. We stayed at Disney’s Pop Century Resort and it was adorable, with the theme of decades and pop culture throughout. I’ve only stayed at the Disneyland Hotel and Disney’s Grand Californian, and this was a different experience and feel. This is one of their value accommodations and a little further from the Parks than the others, but only a short bus ride away.

We made sure to bring a little spending money because, hello – souvenirs at the Parks. We had the option to choose our day of arrival and departure to extend our travel time before and/or after the event. Unfortunately, we didn’t want her to miss school too long since she had previously been out due to surgery the month before, so we opted to just go with a redeye flight after school. Let’s just say upon arrival I was so delirious and exhausted I cried. Keep reading for that fun story 🙂 But seriously, they even thought of tissue at these parent sessions, so don’t worry about that either!

Expect ALL the Magic

This is not a typical “conference.” It was even hard to fully explain this event when people asked. Throw any ideas you may have out the window if you’re one who has attended conferences before because this is so not like that. DDA really is an event that is interactive, focused intently on the growth of these teens. Disney created so many ways to bring the teens and chaperones together, keeping everyone safe, engaged, learning, growing, and having fun. 

There were so many special experiences and touches of Disney magic throughout the week, including a parade in Magic Kingdom just for them! They heard multiple keynotes and had 1:1 conversations with the speakers who are making changes in the world through their respective fields of work. They also got to hear from Disney teen celebrities and Executives! 

You’ll Need to Let Your Baby Go 

KeiLana was just one of a few that were selected as Freshman. Most of the attendees were upper class students, and she was only fourteen when she attended. I hadn’t experienced letting her go run around on her own a whole lot back home yet, and here I was thrust into a new stage that was much needed for our relationship to continue to thrive. I’m always convinced the Universe knows what we need and when we are open and receptive to learning and growing in these areas, opportunities will present themselves.

So, there we were and this part of growth for me was “letting go.” It was a really important and big part of my growth as a mama (or “smother” as my youngest baby endearingly refers to me 🤦🏽‍♀️) in the last couple of years as my children became teens and young adults). This trip is a beautiful experience and “coming of age” opportunity for not just the teens, but also parents like me. 

No, really, it’s going to be okay.

As a young mama, my babies and I have grown up together over the years and they are my little best friends! KeiLana is my baby girl, the youngest of our 3 daughters and we often hear we are “twins” – we look the most alike, are both scorpios, extroverted, driven, question all the things. And now that she’s taller than me and I’ve got some good genes, well we are often mistaken for sisters.

All that being said, part of me grew up as a mama on that trip because I saw my girl in all her independence and glory amongst her peers. It’s a special moment to see, and an honor to have a glimpse into their growth. I realize not all parents have this opportunity in their child’s lives, so I was going to soak it all in. When they said we’d be busy, they did not lie. We were busy and the week was long and short all at the same time! I was prepared mentally but guys, my heart and soul did cartwheels during the first few hours because I had no idea what to expect, and I was both excited and nervous about our being separated at first! 

KeiLana had already met many of her fellow classmates online through social media so they were anxious to meet in real life! Literally the minute we landed she was READY to go. She slept on that redeye flight with mama as the pillow, so she was good; I was delirious! Mama just wanted a shower and nap, and wasn’t quite ready to see my baby off and flying away just yet. I sent her off on her first big solo adventure to roam the Resort with new friends.

After a tearful first call back to my hubby once she left, I was doing better and was able to re-align myself and allow myself to feel the emotion and experience of letting go. It was freeing, and allowed me to learn and enjoy the experience even more, and we all know that wouldn’t be the last time I’d cry on that trip! 

Prepare to Learn and Grow

This entire experience is about growth and learning. Prior to their arrival, DDA sent out a survey to the teens with their preferences and desires for their deep dive experiences. It is essentially, at that point in time, their chosen career path or what they’re most excited to learn about. Their choices grouped them all together into teams (that fun began prior to their arrival) and they had challenges and went through the week together in those groups.

In their deep dives, they also got to experience hands-on activities and learn from Disney Imagineers, Cast Members and in KeiLana’s case, Disney Doctors! At the time of DDA, she was considering a path towards the medical field, as a surgeon.

Thank you Disney for capturing these moments of our teens!

KeiLana learned alongside her peers at Animal Kingdom with Disney Doctors and even sutured a pig’s foot! Although they told her she has a natural stitch hand, and she loved her experience, over the course of the week, and coming home she realized that the medical field might not be for her after all. Attending opened her eyes to what it meant to” Be 100,” and her true authentic self – FOR HER (not for her parents, family or society), and she hasn’t looked back.

Representation, Diversity and Inclusion

Representation is always on my radar. I want people to realize how much it meant for me and my daughter. As a member of Disney Moms of Color, we often talk about the importance of representation in Disney. Being able to interact and learn from members of our Black community within the organization is something that I will never take for granted. I’ve talked about being biracial on the blog before and raising multicultural children in America. There is great importance in having access to role models that look like you and know that have walked the journey before you.

This event is sponsored by Steve Harvey and Essence, so expect to be surrounded by Black greatness in the cast members, speakers, and Disney executives that are present. One of my favorite parts was hearing from Tracey Powell each day. She is a POWERHOUSE speaker, beautiful, gracious, and inspiring human being. She also happens to be Disney Parks & Resorts’ VP of Pricing and Revenue Management, so we know she is brilliant. While everyone was freaking out about various celebrities present, I was fan-girling over the Disney Executives and also Ruth Carter, Costume Designer extraordinaire. My younger fashion student was freaking out hearing her speak and of course getting a picture. 🙂 #WakandaForever

Get Out of it What You Want

As a chaperone, we had our own sessions separate from the teens. We were given many opportunities to grow and learn as well, and make new connections and friendships, too! Our speakers were part of the panel that hand picked each of our teens. I will never forget when Lisa Nichols said “SURPRISE, you thought this was just for the teens – but this is for YOU, too!” Yep, I pretty much cried most of her session. 

Lisa Nichols (@lisa2motivate on IG)

The term chaperone might be a little misleading because the majority of the time we were not with our teens. They were led and cared for by Disney cast members who hold various roles within the organization and have volunteered their time to participate. I know that whenever I make my way back to Disney, it is on my bucket list to be part of this event as a leader. KeiLana’s leader was Denise, she is super sweet and I was more than confident that our teens were in excellent hands on their journeys.

Having that peace of mind allowed me to fully embed myself in our sessions throughout the week. I was able to have fun exploring the Parks with new friends, too! There’s so much that I learned and will continue to share over time. I will share this bit of information that was part of our closing session with Jonathan Sprinkles. I took this as an important concept as we raise our baby adults. We must remember that we can’t let our limitations become their limitations.

We must evolve from being a parent to a coach.

A good coach does the following:

  • Call the plays, but they never get on the field
  • Trust the players’ training (because eventually they call the plays and take leadership over their journey)
  • Believe the seeds sown will put them in the atmosphere to make the right choices.

Our kids are watching and it’s important to allow them to see us grow, struggle and learn, too. Being open minded when you go on this magical journey is your choice. I’m grateful to have connected with other parents on this journey and remain in contact with some to this today. We have a safe space and private fb group where we can share each of our successes and even struggles. Biggest takeaway? You have the opportunity to expand your own horizons, and it is the intent of Disney for you to experience every moment.

I hope that this has at least given you an idea of what is to come should you embark on this journey, and get you thinking about encouraging your teen to apply for DDA! What you are interested in hearing about our experiences? I’ll be sure to add that to a future post, and update here, too! If you’re a parent from a different DDA or a hopeful attendee, reach out and let’s connect!

Disclaimer: My daughter was selected by Steve Harvey Radio Network, Inc and Disney Destinations, LLC (“Disney”) to receive an all-expense paid trip (flight, hotel, food, Disney World admission) to Florida with a chaperone (me), based on her application to The Disney Dreamers Academy. No further compensation was given.

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