Nobody pays any mind to the window when the Hogwarts Express chugs past as the English class reads “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
These high school students are too focused reading their scripts.
This is a public school, after all, built in the heart of a theme park.
“I go to school at Universal,” 18-year-old senior Olivia Davis says matter-of-factly. “It becomes a long conversation of how that’s possible.”
The unorthodox school consists of just 25 teenagers who are students by morning, theme park workers by afternoon.
Some students are eager to make extra money at Universal Orlando Resort to buy their first car or help their parents pay bills.
Others arrive struggling. They are missing credits and at risk for not graduating.
Suddenly, they don’t just need to learn academics but they also have a boss to impress. They must clock in on time. They must be friendly with visitors.
The small class size and new structure can help them thrive in a way they couldn’t before, said lead teacher Jay Verdesca.
“For most of our kids, this is the first job they’ve ever had,” said Verdesca, a veteran Orange County schools teacher of 25 years. “They feel a part of something bigger.”
The Orange County Public Schools-Universal Orlando Resort partnership has existed for 25 years, nearly as long as the theme park has been open, to give students an alternative style of education. However, there’s a renewed energy as the Universal Education Center moved in mid-October to its new space on the third floor of a Universal administration building.
Universal paid for the space, which has four classrooms, while the school district pays for the staffing and everything else.
Students apply, interview with school officials and must be offered a job by Universal before they can start. In the larger space, the school plans to grow enrollment up to 42 students, all who are at least age 16.
In the first half of the day, students wear their uniform slacks and employee name tags to class. Sometimes, you might spot a student dressed in robes for a shift at Wizarding World of Harry Potter walking down the hallway.
A picture on display shows last year’s graduating class wearing mortarboards in front of the iconic spinning Universal globe.
A classroom window faces the backside of the park where the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit coaster zooms down in the distance. Look closely, and the tip of the tail from the fire-breathing dragon atop of Diagon Alley is visible, too.
After class, the students walk through the park to start their shifts. They greet guests at the turnstiles or serve food. They tend the grounds and direct parking.
The students work at least 15 hours a week and are paid the same as the other workers. By February, the starting wage will jump to $12 an hour.
After school lets out, Davis goes to work. She asked guests Wednesday if they want salted or unsalted pretzels at a concession stand near Skull Island: Reign of Kong.
Her stand smells like cinnamon. In the background, ominous sounding music plays from the attraction.
A woman from Illinois with soaked tennis shoes and a poncho from riding a water ride asks for a bottled water. She says “Please” and “Thank you.”
One family hurries through and breathlessly orders churros without any pleasantries.
“Do you want chocolate sauce?” Davis cheerfully asks, her expression never changing.
Her boss didn’t know Davis, so calm and poised, was still in high school when she first started working at the park.
“I had no idea she was 18 years old,” said Jessica Reyes, a Universal assistant general manager.
Like many of her classmates, Davis plans to enroll at Valencia College after she graduates this year.
She wanted to study nursing, but her mentor, Kat Storey, paired by the school, sways her decision.
Storey is a senior manager at Universal Creative and helps the company with expansions across the world.
They talk weekly over mozzarella sticks about life and different career paths. They plan to stay in touch after Davis finishes high school.
Now, Davis questions whether to study business and aim for a career at Universal Creative, too.
One certainty is Davis wants to keep her amusement park job when school ends.
She left Freedom High in Orlando and transferred to the Universal school because she wanted to work more hours at the park.
While earning straight As, Davis picks up extra shifts on Sundays to pay for her phone bill, movie tickets and to contribute to the household.
“Anything I need, I pay for,” Davis said.