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Dreaming in Disney

Amity Paye | 4/12/2011, 4:44 p.m.

Murray-Thomas' story was a very different one. She had seen the discrepancies in education opportunities in her hometown of Newark, N.J., and had applied to Northfield Mount Hermon, a prestigious preparatory school in Massachusetts. Earning a better education and thousands of dollars in scholarships, Murray-Thomas discovered a new issue in her community.

"There is this terrible standard that, depending on where you are from, or the color of your skin, you can't be interested in certain things," she said. "For example, Newark has a lot of stereotypes that people get caught up in, but it doesn't matter what people say and it doesn't matter what the standards are, you have to use your voice and use your power and that's what I've been trying to do." She is interested in political science, journalism and psychology, and now speaks to youth groups and works with children in Newark to encourage them to step out of their stereotypes as well.

Every teen at the Dreamers Academy had their own inspirational story, but Tracey Powell, executive champion for the Disney Dreamers Academy, explained, "What your stories all have in common is the phenomenal courage behind the dreaming." Throughout the weekend the teens were encouraged to dream even bigger as they attended speeches and events that lasted from 7 a.m. until 1 a.m. the next morning.

To help them find their dreams, dreamers participated in "skimmer experiences," guided by Disney representatives through the park in an academy-wide scavenger hunt. Murray-Thomas joined her reps Tom Hartwig and Nicole Brown, who went above and beyond, bringing the dreamers to all the best rides and setting up tours with Disney employees behind the scenes to see how the vehicles for the Everest and Dinosaur rides were constructed, powered and safety-checked behind the scenes. This meant the dreamers knew they were safe and skipped the lines to jump on rides throughout the park.

"It's better than being a celebrity," said Murray-Thomas to one of her new friends after riding the Dinosaur ride in Disney's Animal Kingdom. "They probably don't even get to see as much as we do."

She was right; each day, dreamers participated in Diver experiences, in which they were introduced to aspects of Disney World within the parameters of their specific interests. Hunter studied journalism, and joined reporters from across the country in interviewing other dreamers and covering the events of the weekend, and later dove into Disney fashion with a behind-the-scenes tour of the Disney World creative costuming department and a stylist challenge and fashion show.

Murray-Thomas tried the journalism and sports Diver experiences, meeting NFL athletes who were in town for the ESPN-Disney weekend events and designing sneakers with Dwayne Edwards, the footwear design director for Jordan Shoes who was one of the first African-Americans to design sneakers and one of the youngest people ever to break into the footwear industry.

Still other dreamers dove into animation/graphics, engineering/imagineering, music production and more. And while the kids were learning in the parks, their parents were given some much-needed free time.