Education and Soccer Alumna Makes Magic at Disney World & Remains A Ray of Sunshine Through Cancer Diagnosis

Miranda kicks a soccer ball into a soccer net as an alumnus, while wearing Rowan gold.

In this alumni success story, we learn more of the career path for 2013 education alumna Miranda Donnian. With our catching up with Miranda, a former record-breaking women’s soccer player for the University, we learn more of what came after her time here at the University, where her career has taken her, and her personal journey through life’s difficulties.

Talk a little about your job. What do you do?

I get to make magic every day. It’s super fun and rewarding. I work at Magic Kingdom in Tomorrowland at TRON Lightcycle//Run. It is a brand new roller coaster that opened in April of this year. I am a coordinator and my main job is to make sure that my cast are being taken care of and that my ride runs smoothly. I find that in my position, and the different guest interactions that I’m dealing with on a daily basis, that I’m almost glorified in a way. I have to reiterate, I’m having so much fun making magic and being a coordinator gives me the freedom to go above and beyond for our guests and my cast. It isn’t just about pushing buttons and checking restraints. We go through serious training to bring safety, courtesy, inclusion, show, and efficiency into our daily lives. When it comes down to it, the cast members and the ambience make up a portion of the magic of Disney. It’s something that can’t be experienced fully without us. We are the magic. Walt Disney said it best. “You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world… but it takes people to make the dream a reality.”

Miranda is holding up a set of Mickey Mouse ears.

At TRON Lightcycle//Run, a typical day consists of showing up and getting the ride ready for our guests. We have checklists that we need to complete every day in order to ensure that our ride is safe and ready to operate. As a coordinator, I have a responsibility to make sure that my cast members are set up for success for the day. We utilize ipads and a system called CDS, which stands for Cast Deployment System, and it basically is a graph that shows my workload for the day, all of my cast members for the day, their shift times, what position they are in, and what time their breaks are. As fun as the job is, we tend to have to balance the operation and remember that this is a business. There are certain budget hours we have to hit and I can help hit those goals by running a tight graph. You have to run it the right way; there are a lot of built-in breaks for the cast members so it helps with dealing with the different rotations going on. We make sure that the cast members get to rotate so they aren’t stuck in the same position for hours. It’s nice to be able to move from outdoor positions to indoor positions. With the Florida sun, heat and humidity, you definitely need that AC break. The way we run our operation is incredibly efficient, and everyone is kept happy while the attraction is constantly running. Of course, we have our guest carried target numbers that we need to hit every hour, but it’s very fulfilling knowing that I’m working for a productive, safe and inclusive job. It’s truly so much fun that it doesn’t even feel like work!

Miranda bends over backward laughing, next to the ride she manages at Disney.

What is the most stressful part about it?

The most stressful part of my job has to be the guest situations 100%. With guest situations in particular, there’s a certain expectation that people have just because of how much of a global icon that Disney is. I mean, you look at the catchphrase, “The most magical place on Earth”, it really sets a tone. With all that being said, you’re going to be paying a lot of money for that. People save up all their money and can only visit one time. It’s our job as the cast members to make sure that we can make the most out of their trip and give them exactly what they paid for and more. Unfortunately, you can try your hardest but you can’t please everyone; there are situations that are unavoidable such as rides not working. Mechanical issues are something that is truly outside of our control. On some days it is a lot of hoping that rides are ready and if they’re unable to go, we focus on recovery and still giving a great experience. Disney does a really good job with guest recovery. As a coordinator, I have a lot of access to recovery so I can avoid sending guests to our Guest Relations partners and just take care of them right at my attraction.

Miranda stands smiling next to the ride she manages at Disney, with her hand on her hip.

What’s your favorite part? 

There are so many parts of my job that I love. My favorite one has to be making magic and seeing people’s first-time reactions to Disney. There were so many great memories. For example, when I got to open Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge in Disney’s Hollywood Studios back in 2019. The Star Wars franchise is one of the most successful in the world and we have a life size Millennium Falcon ship and being able to see grown men cry over seeing it for the first time was so cool. Just knowing that the Star Wars franchise has touched so many people in different ways and being able to bring that story to life is something I’ll truly never forget. I was an opening team coordinator in Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge and worked at two attractions; Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and Millennium Falcon Smuggler’s Run. Both were extremely themed and we went through theming classes to make sure that we brought the Star Wars story to life while still providing our great Disney guest service. Working at the Magic Kingdom though is still my absolute favorite just because I feel that when people think of Disney, they think of that park. They want to see Cinderella’s Castle. They want to feel the magic. When I was on my college program I was holding a sign that indicated where the end of line was for The PeopleMover. A family approached me wearing PeopleMover shirts and asked to hold the sign for a picture. At the time I didn’t realize the impact I made on that family, but 7 years later they still remember me and when they come to visit they always talk about the time I let them hold the sign. It’s those little things that truly make my job worth it.

Miranda inside of Tron, the ride she manages.

How did you get involved with Disney in the first place?

So after I graduated from Rowan with two bachelor’s degrees; I decided not to go straight into teaching. I always wanted to do the Disney College Program but, because of soccer, it wasn’t something that I could go and do without missing practice or spring training. I never had the chance or time where I could leave and just dedicate myself to something else. During my time at Rowan, I promised myself that if I was able to graduate, I was going to apply to the Disney College Program. It was my dream and I knew that I could put teaching on hold to achieve it. It’s such a good program, it’s very accessible to so many different groups of people. Even for myself as you can still apply for the college program for up to six months after you graduate. When I graduated, I was in a bit of a spot. I knew that it was a time in my life where I wasn’t ready to go into teaching; I wasn’t ready to be an adult. I wanted to have fun and enjoy the things around me so I made the leap. I reached out to my friend Erika, who I went to highschool with, and she gave me all the tips and tricks on how to get the ball rolling. I wouldn’t be here working for Disney without her help. I applied for the Disney college program, had my phone interview, and was hired three days later. I packed all of my belongings into my 2010 Toyota Camry and drove three hours to Virginia to take the Auto Train to Sanford, Florida and then drove an hour to Disney. I moved down there by myself not knowing a soul. I ended up rooming with seven other girls in one apartment. It was absolutely insane, but truly the best decision of my life so far.

Miranda at her college graduation with her family, and Bunce in the background.

Were you ready to move to Florida? 

Absolutely not. You can ask Coach Scott Leacott and Assistant Coach Tom Eichhorn when I first came to Rowan, I did not speak one word. I came for my campus tour and to meet some of the girls on the team for dinner. I remember sitting in Leacott’s office with my Dad and literally not giving Leacott eye contact. I was so socially awkward and scared to even be there. I’m pretty sure I didn’t say a whole word my freshman year. Looking back on this now, I’m so embarrassed for the way I was back then! I promise I’m so much cooler now. Disney really brought the fun out of me. Anyways, back then I was a homebody. I never left my house, I didn’t party, I just wanted to be home with my family. My freshman year was a huge learning opportunity for me. I’m the oldest of six kids so I was basically the second mom and helped raise my siblings. Leaving home was hard but I forced myself to try new things and I actually lived on campus the first semester of my freshman year. It wasn’t for me and I ended up moving back home which was nice because Rowan is just a 10 minute commute. I know for a fact that back then no one would ever think that I would be capable of moving to Florida on my own but look at me now! 7 years later and living my best life!

Miranda is shooting a soccer ball into a net.

But with the Disney College Program, I was scared 100%. I was stuck in a limbo-like state going from wanting to go through with it and not wanting to be a part of it. Forcing myself to take the leap and move to Florida was such a proud moment for me. I feel as if it was a landmark of some sorts, like I finally grew up even though I was 23 and should have already been considered as an “adult”. I was so scared but super proud. With just making that move everything started tumbling into perspective. I started questioning a lot of my previous habits. Why was I scared to order pizza over the phone? Of course, I do have social anxiety. It’s horrible, but moving to Disney and being forced into that environment, you start to not hear your own worry. Moving to Disney and being forced to talk to guests and strangers and do all the things that I juggled now had forced me to grow up, it forced me to be more responsible. I’ve truly grown from it, I’m so much cooler now.

Miranda huddles with the soccer team.
Miranda huddles with the team (toward right, tallest person).

What’s a piece of advice that you would give to someone thinking of doing something similar to what you’ve done? 

Chase your dreams and don’t be scared of anything. Life is way too short and I’ve learned that the hard way with being diagnosed with breast cancer. It really humbled me and I’m so thankful for that experience. Because I think if I never went to the Disney College Program, if I wasn’t down in Florida and I was diagnosed here in New Jersey, I think my whole cancer experience would have been different. I had such a great support system down in Disney.  I didn’t even want to come home to get treatment. Everyone, especially from New Jersey, had reached out and told me that I should come home, but I knew that I had to trust my doctors down here, I trust my team and Disney was so great during the whole experience I didn’t have to worry about work, all I had to focus on was fighting this cancer. I’ve made so many friends from all over the world and really created a family down here.

Miranda at the alumni game, after her cancer diagnosis and with a bald head.
Miranda at the alumni game, after her diagnosis.

What was the process like getting diagnosed? How did you feel throughout the entire process? 

On June 9, 2021, I found a lump in my breast. I was actually here in New Jersey at home visiting and I was just doing my normal checkups and found a lump. I immediately went to my Mom and started telling her, “hey this doesn’t feel right”. She had told me to get it checked out immediately but I was already flying home to Florida the next morning. It ended up taking two weeks to get an appointment with my primary care doctor who also felt the lump and had me get a mammogram. This was my first ever mammogram so of course I was scared, the doctor said that my breast tissue is dense which makes it harder to see things from the mammogram but they did see a mass. At the time, they couldn’t tell me exactly what it was and they needed to do a biopsy. On August 1, 2021 I got the biopsy and on the 5th I got a phone call at work and I was told that I had breast cancer. Those feelings are still something that sticks with me. I knew the second I found that lump in my breast that it was bad, but nothing can really prepare you for something of that sort. I kept on questioning a lot of things, this shouldn’t be here, I’m so young that this shouldn’t happen to me. I had to mentally prepare myself because of the fact that I’ve dealt with cancer so much in my family already. I had lost my dad to stomach cancer during my senior season. That was truly the hardest time of my life. This may sound weird but a lot of people go straight to the “why me” excuse but I look at it as “why not me?” What makes me better than someone else? You can’t blame anyone but yourself. MY body decided to create this cancer and I’m going to fight it. Cancer truly does not care who you are, how old you are, etc. I’m thankful that it was me who got it because I would never wish this upon anyone. 

A close up of Miranda's soccer cleats with "Dad" written in memory of her father.
Miranda played her senior year memorializing her dad, as seen her on her cleat.

August 5th, 2021 is a day I will never forget. My life changed forever. After getting that phone call at work I ran backstage because you can’t be on your personal devices in the guest view. Everyone at work knew that I was waiting for the biopsy results and I was already preparing myself for the worst news. When my primary care doctor called me she asked if I got my results yet. When I told her no, her tone immediately changed. I knew what was going to come out of her mouth and there was no stopping it. She told me I had breast cancer and my immediate response was “Okay, now what?” She told me that people would be in contact with me about setting up appointments with a breast surgeon, an oncologist, and a radiation oncologist. You would have thought I was dying with the way people talked to me on the phone. I prepared myself for the worst and I think I shook some people when my reaction wasn’t instant tears and sadness. I tried calling my mom to give her the news but she was at the Lake with my siblings living their best lives so I called my Proprietor, which is basically my boss’s boss and she gave me a room to sit and cry in. She sat with me while I had multiple phone calls learning all about my diagnosis and what the next steps would be. She asked if I wanted to go home and I told her no. What’s the point of going home? Nothing. The cancer isn’t going anywhere so why let it dictate my life. I pulled myself together and went right back to work because that is how I am. I don’t let things bring me down. I knew I was going to fight hard and that I had an army of support behind me. This was only the beginning and I was ready to battle. 

I think having a positive attitude in particular is one of the most important things to have when you’re going through something as difficult as fighting cancer. It’s what got me through the 16 rounds of chemo, 30 rounds of radiation and even IVF to freeze some eggs just in case I want to have kids in the future. There were so many obstacles that I had to go through in such a short period of time that I grew so much from it. I love who I am now. I think the current Miranda is so much cooler than what she once was and I didn’t think that was possible. I think my cancer was a blessing in disguise; it’s not something that I wanted at all, but it taught me to have a different perspective. Work has always been my number one thing, I’m a very hard worker and I take great pride in that. But there is so much more to life than work. Cancer shifted that mentality and sort of figured “you know what, Disney will be okay without me for nine months”. It was difficult coming to terms with that, my position could be replaced, but I couldn’t be. I really took the “YOLO: You Only Live Once” motto to heart. 

Miranda is standing next to the Henry Rowan statue and smiling.

What is a piece of advice that you would give to someone after they heard the words, “you have cancer”? 

It’s really difficult, but don’t be sad about it. Be thankful that you know you’re still here, you can still fight. You never really know what’s to come. I’m very thankful and lucky that all of my treatments ended up in a positive way. But I know a lot of people that haven’t been so lucky. I think that having a positive attitude is everything and I will say that until the day I die. Once you are diagnosed with cancer you’ll start to realize that you become a role model for a bunch of different people. Believe it or not, I relied a lot on the app TikTok. I would follow a ton of people who were going through the same thing as me. I would follow their journey and learn how to cope with this diagnosis. I found a ton of videos about chemotherapy but not many on radiation. So I took it upon myself to start a TikTok and I documented all 30 days of radiation treatment and created a cute little following! I only have like 5500 people who follow me but it was so cool to see how many people supported me throughout my journey. Total strangers dedicated their time to get to know me through this app and I’ll forever be grateful. I know I’ve helped so many people along the way and will continue to be a positive light.

People who don’t even know me, they would see me and they would come up and say things like, “you had cancer and you wouldn’t even know it now with the hair.” And it’s true, I look completely normal now.  But when I was first going through treatment, I don’t even remember really conceptualizing myself. When I look back now, I can really see how sick I was all the time. No eyebrows, bald as could be, so sickly white and exhausted. I still kept myself so positive. When I had lost my hair I didn’t really feel too sorry for myself, it was more of a realization like “I’m bald now, at least I have a good shaped head”. That was one of my landmarks with cancer, I never shaved my head before and was really dreading the idea of going bald. It was on Thanksgiving day where I decided to shave it all off. My cousin Emily flew down to Florida to be with me for a few of my chemo sessions and she had the honors of helping me shave my head. We had a computer set up and a bunch of my family members were able to be there to witness me go through so many hair styles before going completely bald. It was such an iconic moment. I really pulled off some cool hairstyles!

Miranda in college receiving an award, with both her parents by her side.
Miranda in college, with her parents.

I went into chemotherapy saying that I would just let my hair fall out on its own. Let me just tell you that losing your hair is PAINFUL. I had absolutely no idea. I felt every single one of my hair follicles. It was like when you pull your hair back in the world’s tightest ponytail and wear that for like a month straight. It was traumatic. I’m very grateful that I had decided to cut it early and get it out of the way. Being bald was pretty cool, a lot of people would palm my head and say “Michael Jordan.” We really joked about being bald a lot. I’ll never shave my head again unless I need to, but being bald really helped me stay positive and learn to roll with the punches. 

What made you come around to Rowan? 

I came to Rowan, and this is actually really funny, but I was not a social person at all. I was really focused on soccer, soccer and soccer. My dad would always come up to me for tournaments and he’d tell me, “this coach wants to talk to you.” I would simply tell him no. I didn’t want to talk to them. Even if it was a Division I school, I was really stubborn and preferred my privacy. I’m still stubborn, but way cooler now. But at the time, there were a lot of people who wanted me. I could have gone Division I, but I was too stubborn and didn’t really want to make a decision. I really liked to just stay home. However, my high school coach was friends with Scott Leacott and I finally talked to someone about my future. I sort of saw it as fate. I didn’t want to go far and I didn’t mind Division III, it didn’t matter to me. As long as I was playing soccer, school came second. I’m gonna be honest, I was really just focused on playing. I wanted to play at the collegiate level, I had been playing soccer since I was 5.

Coming to Rowan was really cool, when I first came to visit the whole place was under construction. So much dirt and debris all over the place. My practice field is now a parking lot. It’s so much cooler now. We didn’t have all these shops and cool little places to explore. When it came down to it, it was between Stockton and Rowan. I remember getting the phone call from Stockton and they had told me they were planning on offering me a spot on the team. Let me just tell you that was the most awkward phone call of my life. I was just like “sorry I’m going to Rowan” and hung up. It worked out great for me, I wanted my family to come and see my games. I’m 10 minutes away from home. I still moved out for the college experience but I kind of wish I didn’t just to save money. I was still super scared that first year, but I was able to take it all in. This was my home away from home. It was also really fun to beat Stockton. 

Miranda returns to the same field she played at during her time at Rowan.

What was your career like here at Rowan?

Playing here was a dream. I really wish that I could play now at this age just because I feel like my experience would have been so much different; I’m so open and bubbly but still have that competitive spirit. It’s carried with me even now, I have joined a co-ed softball team with Disney and I surprise myself with how upset I get when we lose. Heck I’m still bitter about a lot of my losses throughout my career haha. My freshman and sophomore year, like I said, I was not as cool, but it was fun to play with such great players. There was so much talent and so many great quality people. We created a family. I still talk to Coach Leacott and Tom all the time. Leacott always comes to find me when he visits Disney and I’m still working on getting Tom to bring his family down. He’s a tough cookie. 

Miranda walks in a line with other soccer players, each holding the hand of the person in front of them and behind them.

Playing soccer here at Rowan was such a great experience. We created a family out of our mutual love for the game. Being able to represent the university was a top tier moment for me. My senior year I had lost my dad to stomach cancer. It was a turning point for myself; I didn’t know what direction to really go. I was in the middle of classes and was getting ready to start preseason while also dealing with this grief. I wasn’t prepared. With cancer in particular, it can be quick. One day you get diagnosed and then four months later you’re gone. Coach and the team were so supportive of me during that time. 

When my dad passed it was a lot of learning for me, I was 21 and I had to step up into that role of being another parental figure for my younger siblings. You have to figure out ways to converse with your younger family members, like my brother who was 5 at the time, and find out ways to navigate through those conversations. Even still, I was gripping with this new reality of life without my dad. It was a really sad time but having the team and everybody at the university support me and my family was really reassuring. It wasn’t just an individual thing, they shared the same feelings that I was going through, it wasn’t “you’ll get through this” it was “we’ll get through this, and we’re here for you”. Even beyond Rowan, other teams would support me and it was such a special feeling being able to play that season for my dad. He was always at the games but it was such an experience seeing everybody wear all those black bands on their left arm in solidarity for me. I know my dad was with me and he had the best seat in the house.

What did you major in?

I came to Rowan undecided, and man, I was undecided for like two years. I was here for a whopping five years. I wish I could have just majored in soccer haha. I ended up majoring in Early Childhood Education and American Studies. I’ve used it in my, you know, normal life. Like you’re always learning, you’re always teaching. So no, I’m not teaching kids their colors right now. But I was also a trainer at work. So I was able to use what I learned from Rowan and taught people how to work heavy machinery and how to be safe on the job. So you take a lot of what you’ve learned here at school, and you’re going to use it for the rest of your life. Regardless if you have that piece of paper or not you never stop learning. I literally thought I was gonna live here. I would always tell coach Leacott  “I’m never graduating.”

Miranda is walking with her coaches around the soccer field.

Do you feel being on a soccer team and being around a family environment helps with your job and helps with being able to create that family atmosphere with your job?

Oh, yeah. 100% Being on a team, and just playing sports in general, is such a building moment in your life where you’re just making friends, you’re doing all these things to help yourself. It’s not just about the individual, it’s everybody coming together as one to really come to one goal. So with Disney, there’s like 75,000 of us, there’s a lot of people working together from all over the world and we all come together as one for one thing: to make magic and to create happiness. If I hadn’t played soccer I would probably be really boring; it built character.  

Miranda with her 9 person team outside of Tron. Miranda is wearing a mask.

What could you say to people that don’t know what they want to do immediately after college? 

This question is really funny to me because that was literally me in a nutshell. I’d say to live your best life. Live that YOLO mentality. Here at Disney, I work with people who have degrees in mechanical engineering and do you know what they’re doing? They’re living their best lives fixing our rides. There are also many people here who have degrees that they are not using and that is okay. At the end of the day you have to make sure that you are doing what makes YOU happy. Even if you go into something without knowing what you plan on doing, having that degree still sets you apart. You’ll always be able to find a job even if you don’t end up using the specific degree that you have earned. You’re building on something important and you’re here for a reason; even if you don’t know it yet, you’ll have to go out and find it. I highly suggest coming to work for Disney though if you’re in that area of uncertainty. There are a ton of jobs you could do and the best part is that Disney has this program called Aspire. Employees can earn one Bachelor’s degree and one Master’s degree through Aspire, regardless of what level of education they previously earned. 100% of the tuition is covered by Disney and this is just one of the many perks we get as cast members. I’m thankful for my time at Rowan and I’m thankful for the Disney College Program for giving me a once in a lifetime opportunity I couldn’t miss! “If you can dream it, you can do it!” – Walt Disney

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Edited by Lucas Taylor, graduate education student