For Disney Internships & Programs participants, getting the chance work at the “Most Magical Place on Earth” is like a dream come true, and American Campus Communities, Inc. (NYSE: ACC) is happy to be responsible for the place they call their home away from home.
Flamingo Crossings Village is a purpose-built multifamily community within the Flamingo Crossings mixed-use development in Winter Garden, Florida. Disney Internships & Programs includes the Disney College Program, Disney International Program, and Disney Culinary Program. This paid internship opportunity allows participants to work at the Walt Disney World® Resort in a variety of operating roles. Typical program lengths range from one semester to 12 months.
“We wanted to create a customer experience for participants that emulates what they create for their guests,” says Bill Bayless, CEO of ACC. He explains that before Disney brought the REIT in to develop the community, Disney Internships & Programs participants were housed in traditional garden-style apartments.
As the largest owner, manager, and developer of student housing in the United States, ACC has plenty of experience creating communities for students, but this project and the close partnership with Disney was different.
“There’s nothing really like this anywhere else,” Bayless says. While there’s a parallel to student housing, he explains that Flamingo Crossings Village has an immense scale with approximately 10,000 beds and about 50,000 square feet of state-of-the art amenity space situated on 150 acres leased from Disney. Here, participants have access to resort-style amenities, including a fitness center, social lounges and recreation spaces. The apartments are located in close proximity to Walt Disney World Resort®.
While the occupants are a similar demographic to the college students ACC serves in other locations, these participants are also immersed into Disney culture through their program experience. The collaboration between Disney and ACC extends to details such as the unit designs, the connection to adjacent retail development, and the amenity mix that gives residents their own Disney resort experience, says William Talbot, chief investment officer of ACC.
As for the residents at Flamingo Crossings Village, enthusiasm prevails. “Living here is like living in a mini-resort,” says Daquan Spratley, a former participant who now works as a resident experience specialist at Flamingo Crossings Village. “My dorm at Morehouse College didn’t have health, wellness, and recreational amenities that are anything like what we have here.”
When ACC was founded in 1993, student housing wasn’t considered a mature or financially viable commercial real estate asset, Bayless says.
“I had four poster boards at the time to explain our approach to stakeholders and one of them was labeled ‘the Disney Way,’” he says. “Everyone had been to Disneyland or Disney World and knew Disney was synonymous with best-in-class accommodations and services, impeccable curb appeal, and creating a world-class customer experience. We founded and built ACC into the industry leader we are today by emulating Disney every step of the way. To now play the role we do in housing Disney’s program participants brings our mission full circle. You just can’t deny the karma.”
In 2017, Disney contacted ACC to begin discussions that ultimately led the company to programming, designing, developing, owning, and managing the fully-integrated community for the 10,000-plus Disney Internships & Programs participants.
Bayless says ACC took the core competencies that have made it successful in student housing and applied them to a new concept that was realized in Flamingo Crossings Village. The key components are the community program and accommodation design that creates a full immersion into Disney’s motto for the program: living, learning, earning.
ACC holds a ground lease for Flamingo Crossings Village and owns and manages the apartments. The parcel is targeting a stabilized yield of 6.8% when fully complete. “We’re on proforma with deliverables to date and will fully stabilize in May 2023 with six out of 10 phases that have been delivered,” Talbot says.
ACC conducted a survey of nearly 3,000 participants to understand the amenities and resources they felt would help them be successful during their program and what they would like to see in their new housing. The goal of Flamingo Crossings Village is to create a purpose-built community to support the professional, academic, and personal pursuits of the participants on the program.
A Look at the Future of Community
The partnership between Disney and ACC can be a model for the future development of purpose-built housing, Bayless believes.
“Disney was an active participant in creating affordability and the cultural experience at Flamingo Crossings Village,” Bayless says. “We worked closely with the team at Disney and with the focus groups to design the project, and that would be an essential part of any corporate housing development.”
ACC believes in the consumer-centric approach they’ve taken to revolutionize student housing, which can also assist in developing high quality, purpose-built housing, Bayless says. To meet the needs of a diverse workforce, ACC stresses the need to create a wide array of accommodations offering a variety of price points within the community.
“Multifamily developments are fairly cookie cutter products with price points falling into usually Class A, B, or C based on the socio-demographic being targeted. We’ve created affordability in student housing by taking a much different approach—accommodating students in a single community with significant variation in accommodation choices and diversity of price points,” Bayless says. ACC was able to adopt that same approach at Flamingo Crossings Village.
Further affordability was achieved as a result of Disney’s willingness to fully participate in terms of supplying the land and providing transportation for the participants’ program needs. In addition, keeping the rent affordable for participants was an inherent benefit of Disney’s commitment to the project, Bayless says.
“Typically, companies just sit back and let private developers build housing near their locations,” Bayless says. “But when a large employer is nearby, developers typically compete and drive up land prices. Everything tends to end up being Class A development at the highest price point, which shuts out much of the workforce.” Having a true corporate partner who will be an active participant to create affordability can be the real difference in solving the housing shortage, he notes.
The size of Flamingo Crossings Village and of Disney itself contributes to the success of the development, Bayless says. Developing a smaller community or working with a smaller company might be more challenging.
Purpose-built housing needs to accommodate more variation in lifestyle than student housing, according to Bayless. “You may have couples and young families as well as singles who are willing to have roommates and those that want more privacy, so there’s a greater need for more lifestyle-oriented accommodations,” he says.
While student housing is ACC’s core business and key focus, Bayless says the REIT wants to be opportunistic in areas where it can apply core competencies to create competitive advantage in other sectors. “If we see other opportunities to work with a corporation to develop purpose-built housing while creating shareholder value, we would love to build on our experience with Disney."
Disney Internships & Programs, which has operated since 1981, employs thousands of college students for a semester or up to a year to work in the parks and resorts, take personal and career development classes, and live and work with participants from around the world. Participants can earn college credit in customer service and leadership during their time on the program.
“Disney Internships & Programs offers college students a great career development opportunity, including gaining experience in a frontline role at our parks and resorts or a professional internship in their field, networking opportunities, and participating in learning experiences and activities created just for them,” says Kristi Breen, vice president, Disney International and Campus Programs. “Our collaboration with ACC and the new and expanding housing at Flamingo Crossings Village play an important role in the success of our program.”
Jalin Rodgers, a former participant who completed her program in January and now works as a resident experience specialist at Flamingo Crossings Village, said, “this is my first experience living away from home and it’s amazing that even with a roommate I have plenty of privacy in my apartment,” Rodgers says. “The community center is a big hangout spot for everyone and it’s easy to meet people there.” Rodgers also appreciates the events held for residents at Flamingo Crossings Village, such as trivia contests, scavenger hunts, dances, and food truck events.
Elissa Hall, a former participant who also completed her program in January, said, “I’ve found it so easy to talk to people and hear their really interesting life stories just while sitting at the fire pit.” She will return to Tuskegee University in the summer but works as a resident experience specialist at Flamingo Crossings Village. She also appreciates the ease of getting around without a car to all the Disney parks and resorts.
For both Rodgers and Hall, Disney Internships & Programs encouraged them to shift their career aspirations to project management and business leadership. Their strong sense of the Disney culture helped them appreciate the benefits of working within a corporate environment.
The Disney brand can be felt throughout Flamingo Crossing’s buildings, which include vibrant color palettes, murals of classic Disney characters, and artwork highlighting Disney landmarks. The East Parcel of Flamingo Crossings Village, which was completed in July 2021, is a 55-acre site that includes 20 residential buildings organized into neighborhoods that create a sense of place for residents and allow for easy access to amenities. Each of the five neighborhoods has a unique color palette highlighting a Disney character.
The East Parcel also has a 28,000 square foot community center, a 12,500 square foot fitness center, two swimming pools with hot tubs, a six-hoop basketball court, a sand volleyball court and large event lawn with outdoor pavilions, grilling stations, and lounge areas. The community center has multiple opportunities to open the building to the outdoors with folding glass walls and roll-up glass doors. In addition to numerous spaces for recreation and relaxation with gaming TVs, ping pong, billiards, foosball and more, there are ‘innovation nooks’ for group or private study space.
Flamingo Crossings Village also includes Apprentice Hall, a lease-back structure built and designed by ACC in coordination with Disney. The building includes a variety of flexible classroom spaces along with the Disney Programs Office and Desk.
Getting the Right Mix
Getting the housing component right was essential to the success of Flamingo Crossing Village and ACC worked closely with Disney to provide an array of units at affordable price points. “College students, including those participating in a Disney program or internship, come from diverse economic backgrounds,” Bayless says.
Some of the students, particularly international students, stay on a program for as long as one year, while others are there for a semester or a summer. “We collaborated closely with Disney to understand the profile of the students, which informed the unit designs and mix,” Talbot says.
ACC purposely designed 62% of the units for shared occupancy at a lower price point. Those two-bedroom, two-bathroom units are specially designed with two beds per room, individual closets, and individually controlled lights. Another 30% of the units are four-bedroom, two-bathroom units with two private bedrooms sharing each bathroom. Meanwhile, 8% of the units have four bedrooms, each with a private bathroom, which are the highest price point units.
All the apartments have a full kitchen with stainless-steel appliances and quartz countertops, a living room, and a full-size washer and dryer.
“On their program, the participants are there to live, learn, and earn,” Bayless says. He adds that Disney wants the participants on the program to work, but also to stay healthy. That’s why there are two large fitness centers and plenty of social amenities to help everyone relax.
Bayless acknowledges that not every company has the strong brand identity of Disney, “but they can aspire to create a community where their employees can thrive.” Flamingo Crossings Village is “truly a model for other corporations who want to address the shortage of purpose-built housing for their employees, while also strengthening their corporate culture,” he says.