In a magical setting where wild animals and thrill rides share the spotlight with princesses and castles, 100 teenagers from throughout the United States gathered last weekend in Orlando to learn how to make their wildest dreams come true.
They were a part of the eighth annual Disney Dreamers Academy with broadcast personality Steve Harvey and Essence magazine. And their classroom was the entire Walt Disney World Resort. Three of the teens — Shanese Campbell, D’Andre Ragin and Keno Tate — were from South Florida.
The program was launched in 2007. since then, 900 Dreamers have been selected for the program. Students must submit applications and answer essay questions about their personal stories, the people who are most influential in their lives and their dreams for the future. A panel of judges selects 100 participants each year.
This year’s Dreamers were selected from among 10,000 applicants who had applied for the opportunity of a lifetime, Harvey told the group on their first day at the Dreamers Academy.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“So, how come you are here? Trip on that for a moment. Sometime people just don’t get it,” he said. “The fact that you are here, out of 10,000 applicants, symbolizes that God must have a plan for you.”
I was invited to the Dreamers Academy, joining other journalists from throughout the country. Upon arriving, I was met by Mimi Lugo, who was assigned as my personal rep, and would guide me through the process over the next four days.
First, there was the briefing and kickoff luncheon where we met Mickey Mouse himself. After lunch, the Dreamers boarded buses that took them to Magic Kingdom for the parade down Main Street.
While the four-day experience was loaded with fun and excitement, nothing could compare with the power-packed program where the teens rubbed elbows with industry experts and motivational speakers in “Deep Dive” classes. The teens were submerged in hands-on workshops with experts who represented the best in their fields, from animation to zoology. Dreamers also learned important skills such as communication techniques and networking strategies, which helped to build confidence and create fun memories.
Speaker Bishop T.D. Jakes told the teens: “No one should ever define you. Knowing where you want to go makes you a visionary. But a dream without a plan is painful. Every great person I know had to kill a giant to get there. Learn early how to identify your giant, which can be fear, intimidation ... identify your giant and bring it down.”
Jakes said he spoke from experience. As a child he had teachers who told him he would never write a book. “I have written 38 books,” he said. “And the boy who had a speech impediment has gone all over the world speaking.”
Past Dreamers have gone into a laboratory with a veterinarian at Animal Kingdom, prepared a meal with hydroponic vegetables grown at Epcot, mixed music in a recording studio at Hollywood studios and built a model roller coaster with Magic Kingdom engineers.
Each student came to the academy with one parent or guardian. Once at the resort, the teens were quickly separated from their parents, who had their own agendas including inspirational speakers and workshops.
The teens explored the opportunities presented to them.
“The Disney Dreamers Academy was an amazing opportunity for all of us,” said Roe Ragin, whose son D’Andre, 14, was one of the youngest teens there. Ragin said she had heard about the program through a friend. She encouraged her son to apply.
“I knew he would get a great experience,” Ragin said. “But I didn’t know how much the Disney people would do for the parents.”
Ragin said that at the parents’ sessions, they were told they needed to be motivated, too.
“A lot of times we parent through guilt. But we were told that it is OK for us to teach our children how to take on responsibilities. That teaches them to be strong and confident,” she said. Ragin’s son is a ninth-grader at Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens.
D’Andre said he wants to become a lawyer and that Steve Harvey is his mentor “because everything he set out to accomplish, he did it. He sets high goals and then he pursues them.”
Lakeecha Brown-Tate learned about the program while looking online for ways to help motivate her son Keno Tate, 16, who was slow about filling out the application.
His great-grandmother told him, “Keno, if you are going to do this you need to sit down now and complete the application.”
“That did it,” said Keno, a junior at Miami Northwestern High School. “I filled it and sent it in on the last day. I didn’t think I’d be accepted ... but here I am.” He plans to attend Morehouse College or Florida State University. He wants to someday be an emergency room physician.
“It’s been great being here,” Keno said. “We are getting tools that are really needed to become successful. It’s here and it’s free. I’m so glad I came.”
Shanese Campbell, 16, is a junior at Miramar High School and wants to attend the University of Central Florida. Her goal is to be an orthodontist, or an obstetrician or gynecologist.
Shanese didn’t think her essay was “that special” and was surprised when she got the acceptance letter. “This is also good for my younger brother and sister,” she said. “It will let them know they can do whatever they set their minds to do.”
“I was so proud of Shanese because she heard about the program from her mentor and applied on her own,” said her mom, LaCosha Campbell.
Other speakers at the conference included award-winning gospel singer Yolanda Adams; Disney Dreamers alumni Princeton Parker; Essence editor-at-large Mikki Taylor; and Harvey’s twin daughters, Brandi and Karli Harvey.
The program concluded with a graduation ceremony where each Dreamer’s parent was given a ring they put on their child’s finger.
“We will never be the same,” LaCosha Campbell said. “This has been a life-changing experience.”