Alyssa Houtz (’13), Hersheypark to University Park to Disney Parks
In stories of how students find the Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management major at Penn State, this one may be the best of all. Penn State RPTM alumnus Alyssa Cooperson Houtz ('13) gives all the credit to her mother.
“My mom was a huge Wheel of Fortune fan,” said Alyssa. “We were watching it together during College Week and one of the college contestants was from Penn State. She said her major was RPTM and had to explain to the host what RPTM is. My mom looked at me and said I needed to google that. It was exactly what I wanted to do.”
Alyssa arrived at Penn State with experience in the field and it was that experience that has provided the foundation for her continued career in RPTM. A graduate of Palmyra High School, Alyssa began working at Hersheypark in high school and continued working there until she graduated from college. In her seven years with Hersheypark she moved from foods, to rides, to supervisor, to call center, and eventually call center supervisor. In classes in RPTM, Alyssa and several of her friends and colleagues from Hersheypark who had all decided to make RPTM their major became known as “The Hersheypark Crew”. Included in that group of theme park enthusiasts was Matt Houtz, Alyssa’s now husband.
For Alyssa, a career with Disney was always the dream.
“My interest is Disney is also because of my mom,” said Alyssa. “She went to Disney every year since it opened in 1971. In my last year of high school, we did our annual trip and I noticed one of the cast members had her college printed on her name tag under her name. That was unusual because it’s usually where they are from. I asked her about it. That is when I learned about the Disney College Program.”
Alyssa had initially enrolled at the Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) but knew that the theme park industry and an RPTM degree was where she wanted to be. In 2009, she took off for Orlando and completed six months with the Disney College program. She transferred to University Park when she returned. That entry level internship and her experience with Hersheypark set her up for success in the classroom and an eventual offer for the highly-coveted and competitive Disney Management Internship.
“I actually never left Disney after the College program,” said Alyssa. “Disney has a program that you can keep your employee status if you work some every year. While I was at Penn State and working at Hersheypark, I would jump on a plane to Florida and work for a few days every once in a while, to keep my status.”
As a college student, Alyssa also participated in the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the global association for attractions professionals. She applied for, and was offered, an internship at their weeklong annual Expo and made contacts there that continue today. Because of that experience, she is able to attend and participate in the Expo every year and helps mentor new professionals.
“After the management internship, I never left. I’ve been with Disney since.”
With degree in hand, she threw her hat back into the Disney casting pool and took advantage of opportunities as they came up. The promotion system at Disney is not linear. Cast members will often move from one service area in the park to another, sometime taking steps back to gain experience or to move toward an opportunity that offers more responsibility. Alyssa took temporary placements in retail. She has worked at Epcot and Fantasyland. She was part of the team that opened a new retail store in Disney Springs. In 2016, she landed in her current position as Guest Experiences Manager for the Main Entrance at Disney’s Water Parks. She supervises over 100 people in her role. While she loves her current position, she hopes to continue to move up within the Disney system.
On their days off, Alyssa and Matt can be found at a theme park. A 2012 RPTM graduate, Matt worked at Universal Studios until the pandemic and is now working in the insurance industry. They like to travel to other parks and enjoy their time as guests. Daughter Elle, born in 2021, was three weeks old when she visited her first theme park and later took her first steps at Six Flags Over Georgia.
“My degree in RPTM didn’t have a strong theme parks focus,” she said “but all of the other courses – management, operations, tourism – I still use. I remember learning the 80/20 rule in a tourism course and have found that to be so true. I always remember that. The courses we had on resumes and interviewing are still things I use today.”
From Hersheypark to University Park to the Water Parks at Walt Disney World, Alyssa Houtz and her career exemplify just one of the amazing career paths that a degree in RPTM can offer.