Disney Cast Members Share Their Anxiety and Anger About the Parks Reopening
“It’s time for magic.” With that phrase, Disney revealed on June 10 that Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure would reopen on July 17, the 65th anniversary of opening day in 1955. That date’s been pushed back because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but Disney is determined to open its doors soon. Guests are thrilled at the idea of returning to “The Happiest Place on Earth,” but some cast members are terrified.
“It’s not that we don’t want to work. It’s not that we’re not interested in bringing the magic back to this place. It’s that we are frightened,” cast member Jason (not his real name) said. “We don’t know how bad the risk to ourselves is going to be, but we know that there will be a risk. And it is a risk that none of us signed up for.”
Two weeks after the re-opening announcement, Disney decided to push back the date to open Disneyland, Disney California Adventure Park, and the Disneyland Resort Hotels. In a statement, the company said it’s because California’s state government “indicated that it will not issue theme park reopening guidelines until sometime after July 4.” (Gizmodo reached out to Disney for additional comment for this article, but a representative only redirected us to previously released statements.)
This move comes after the Coalition of Resort Labour Unions, which represents 17,000 service workers for the Disneyland Resort, sent a joint letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom asking the state to delay Disneyland’s planned reopening because safety plans weren’t ready. They also staged a car caravan protest in Anaheim over the weekend. In an interview with Gizmodo, Workers United Local 50 (which represents over 7,700 restaurant workers) president Chris Duarte said the unions were surprised by Disney’s announcement that it was pulling back — as they were given no heads-up from the company — but he hopes it gives the company and unions time to settle ongoing health and safety issues.
“We’re a little surprised by it. We had no warning that that was going to take place, and we’ve been in continual discussions with the company for weeks now,” Duarte said of Disney’s postponement announcement. “From a certain level, to start bringing people back without knowing if the parks are going to actually be cleared to be open, it makes sense at a certain level [for Disney to delay reopening]. We still have a number of health and safety concerns, which is why we had sent the letter out to the governor previously. So, this gives us more time to actually start continuing to address those concerns and try to resolve them.”
Gizmodo also talked with five non-union Disneyland cast members, all of whom asked to not be named for fear of risking their jobs. (We’ve identified them by pseudonyms for the sake of clarity.) After Disney closed the parks, they received a couple of weeks paid leave but have been furloughed ever since, meaning they can file for unemployment while still being considered hired. They’ve been living on state unemployment and weekly $US600 ($876) federal payments under the U.S. CARES Act, which is set to expire at the end of July. Faced with the possibility of returning to the parks, they’re angry, frustrated, and scared — and none of them think now is the right time to go back.
These cast members don’t represent all of Disneyland Resort’s 31,000 workers — Duarte said some union members are eager to return to work, not to mention the folks in this promotional video released by Disney Parks — but there are a lot of employees, like Nestor and Paige (again, not their real names), who are worried they’re going to become what Paige referred to as “frontline cast members.”
“We have lives too. We have families and friends that we live with too. While you are there to enjoy your day and have fun, this is our job,” Nestor said. “I think there’s a great divide between the excitement of the park reopening between guests and cast members because guests can’t really see our point of view.”
Disney closed its theme parks worldwide in March as the novel coronavirus pandemic started to spread. Three months later, the Walt Disney World Resorts in Orlando are readying a phased reopening for July 11. The plan has already been approved by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and in a recent statement to a Florida news station, he said there are no plans to roll them back. The nearby Disney Springs shopping centre is already open. This comes after Universal Studios Orlando reopened on June 5 with limited capacity. It seems guests couldn’t wait; they’ve been flooding the Disney World booking site since June 22, when it opened for people who’d had previous Disney World reservations. On Friday, the first slots opened for pass holders and within hours the first week was entirely booked.
Elsewhere, Shanghai Disneyland has been open since May 11, while Hong Kong Disneyland returned on June 18. Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea are scheduled to reopen on July 1, and Disneyland Paris will be coming back on July 15. These are places where the coronavirus is more under control; Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo are reporting cases in the dozens, not thousands, and France is seeing positive covid-19 test rates of only 1.5%.
The plan in Anaheim is to open the Downtown Disney shopping centre on July 9, as the state gave the go-ahead on that one week ago because it’s an outdoor shopping and restaurant complex that’s free and open to the public. It was originally going to be followed by Disneyland and California Adventure on July 17 and Disneyland Resort Hotels on July 23, but now that’s been pushed back to an unspecified date. Disney has already proposed some of its own safety measures, including temperature checks, social distancing guidelines, and requiring guests and cast members to wear masks. But the state is waiting until after July 4 to issue its own demands for theme park re-openings. In its statement, Disney said it is committed to reopening Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure once it knows what California’s guidelines are going to be.
Having the original Disneyland park finally reopen, along with all the others, is being hailed by the company and some fans as a return to magic, normalcy, and fun, but it’s an economic decision. Disney’s theme parks reported $US1 ($1) billion in losses last quarter from closing its parks during the pandemic, and they stand to lose upward of $US21 ($31) billion through 2022 if things don’t return to something resembling “normal.” Even the original July 17 date came across as more calculated than celebratory, with Nestor calling it a “PR stunt” that didn’t factor in employee safety. Paige said she feels like she’s serving at the company’s whim, and the higher unemployment in her industry leaves her without a lot of options for another job.
“I will defend the company when I feel like they deserve it, and will try to be a voice of reason to people who very much are, you know, more against the company’s decisions,” Paige said. “But at this point now, I can’t think of really any good reasons, aside from money, that they would want to reopen this quickly. It saddens me more than anything else because I just kind of feel like a hostage to the company at this point.”
When Disney goes forward with its plans, the parks will reopen to a world that is not ready for them. The pandemic continues to escalate in the United States with over 2.5 million cases reported on Sunday, including 40,587 new infections. It’s getting to the point where the European Union is considering barring American travellers from the U.S. The two states housing Disney’s theme parks are seeing surges; Florida had 8,500 new cases on Sunday, with the number of covid-19 infections in the state increasing five-fold in two weeks. California saw 4,500 new cases on Sunday and re-closed bars in several counties in response. On June 18, Gov. Newsom signed an executive order requiring masks for people who are out in public spaces, but some sheriff departments are saying they won’t enforce it — including in Orange County, where Disneyland is based. Disneyland employees like Julie (not her real name) say the state ban is not enough to keep the pandemic from reaching the park.
“Disney is a magical place where they can escape the realities of the world, but the reality of the situation is that the pandemic is everywhere, even at Disneyland,” Julie said. “The pandemic doesn’t magically go away just because you’re at a theme park.”
Duarte said the unions have been in talks with Disney for weeks, trying to set up safety protocols so the company — which is worth nearly $US200 ($292) billion — can move forward with its reopening timeline. Other unions have already reached agreements with the company. However, non-union cast members said they’ve been left in the dark. They didn’t even know Disneyland was reopening until it was announced to the public on June 10.
It seems to be part of a pattern of communication issues between Disney and its employees. Duarte wrote on Facebook (before the delay) that the union was “shocked” to learn Disney had identified 775 people to be brought back from furlough, giving them one week’s notice — in spite of the fact that the unions haven’t finalised negotiations, and Gov. Newsom hadn’t approved the reopening schedule yet. He said they were surprised because Disney hadn’t communicated to the unions before moving forward.
Right now, the unions are still trying to arrange for several basic safety requirements. Negotiations include free masks for cast members, on-demand covid-19 testing, heightened security to ensure guest safety compliance, paid leave for cast members who contract covid-19, guaranteed family leave for coronavirus-related situations, and the option to “opt out” of returning to work in the initial weeks for medical or personal reasons (while still being furloughed). According to Duarte, Disney has responded favourably to some, like providing free masks for cast members, but is pushing back on others. The biggest sticking point is testing. Duarte said Disney has “no inclination or want at this time to test employees in any manner,” instead, it’s encouraging cast members to go to public testing sites on their own time. Disney did not answer our questions regarding the union’s demands.
“If you’re not testing, how are you going to identify who’s been exposed?” he said. “It’s missing a piece of the puzzle.”
Time will tell how much of the unions’ demands are met, as talks are ongoing. In the meantime, Disney has already unveiled its safety plans for Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, whenever it’s set to open. According to a statement, the park will initially run at a reduced capacity to encourage social distancing, cashless transactions will be encouraged, and all guests will receive temperature checks before entering the parks (a process that has been criticised for missing a great deal of positive cases).
Behind the scenes, things look a bit more complicated. Three cast members told Gizmodo that Disney may limit access to break areas and food preparation stations. It’s left them worried about how they’ll eat and rest during their shifts. Duarte refused to comment on that, and Disney didn’t respond to our questions.
Then, there are the masks. Disney has confirmed that all cast members and guests will be required to wear them inside Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. This is something that’s been uniform across all Disney Parks openings, and it’s been successful so far. Photos of Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland serve as examples that people wearing masks can still have fun. But there’s a problem: America isn’t playing by the same rules.
“The reason why Shanghai has been doing so well is because they’re in a country with a very different culture than America has, where people wear masks regularly already,” Julie said. “In America, you see people protesting the fact that they’re having to wear a mask, or refusing to wear a mask and then getting mad at whatever a store or company turns them away because they have to wear one. So, I just don’t see it working the same way for us.”
Masks have become a hot button issue in the U.S. (largely along political lines), even though numerous medical experts have stated that they’re highly effective in stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus. For some, masks have become a symbol of oppression instead of public health. The internet is full of videos of people refusing to wear them in social situations, getting angry, or even starting fights when stopped from entering stores because they aren’t wearing masks. It’s only enhanced by the fact that only 18 states require them, and President Donald Trump resists wearing one himself.
Cast members said they’re happy Disney will require masks at their parks but have no confidence that guests will actually follow the requirement. “Guests are very sneaky people,” Julie said. “They no longer allow selfie sticks [at Disneyland], yet almost every day at work I still see a good handful of guests who have selfie sticks. So even if a guest comes in with a mask, who’s going to tell them to [keep wearing] the mask?”
Masks will be required to enter the park, but cast members said it would be easy for guests to simply take them off once inside, or find excuses not to wear them. There are already several reports out of Disney Springs of people not wearing their masks or ignoring security requests — taking advantage of “loopholes,” like carrying around water bottles so they can keep their masks off under the guise of drinking. There’s plenty of security services at Disney Parks, along with special exclusive police provided through a contract with the Anaheim Police Department, but cast members were unsure whether they’ll actually kick people out who are refusing to comply. Duarte said heightened security to respond to noncompliant guests is part of the union negotiations.
It puts them in a very awkward position, worried if they’ll end up having to confront an uncooperative (and possibly contagious) guest screaming in their faces. Of course, the biggest fear is getting sick and that’s already happening.
There have been reports of an employee at a Disney Springs restaurant testing positive for covid-19. They’d been working for two weeks before finding out, according to WDW News Today. Cast members are worried about their health and the health of their coworkers, especially those who’ve worked in the park for decades and are more high-risk due to age. They’re also concerned for their loved ones. Jason told Gizmodo he has a mother who is extremely high risk. He’s already had to limit contact with her because of her regular, non-covid hospital visits, but he knows that going back to work means he may not get to see her at all until there’s a vaccine. When discussing the situation he started to cry.
“That one’s really hard. That one’s really hard. I don’t want to not see her until that point,” he said. “Knowing conclusively that I would be not be able to really see her, really frightens me.”
Another cast member, Bethany (not her real name), doesn’t have the option of staying away from her at-risk family members, and it worries her. “I honestly don’t know what precautions I’m even going to take because I’m not sure exactly what we’re going to be encountering at work. I don’t have another place to live. I live at home with my family, who some are high risk, so it’s crossed my mind. But I’m kind of at a loss of what I’m supposed to do,” Bethany said.
These cast members feel like Disney isn’t taking the needs of its employees into consideration, so they’re handling it themselves. Many have been actively communicating with each other on social media — voicing concerns, posting news updates, and passing around petitions, like this one from Change.org (which has received over 56,000 signatures so far). One Medium article from cast member Joshua Carranza-Vick was directed at “the Bobs and Co.” of Disney, meaning Disney CEO Bob Chapek and executive chairman Bob Iger. It included a list of demands he said were put together with the help of other cast members: on-site coronavirus testing, a dedicated contact tracing team, paid sick leave and hazard pay, and establishing groups of voluntary cast members who would enforce social distancing requirements on-site — some of which are part of union negotiations.
There’s also the fact that the non-union cast members said they’re earning more on unemployment than they were as employees, thanks to the CARES Act stimulus package. They normally make an average of about $US15 ($22) to $US17 ($25) per week, a few dollars above the state’s $US12 ($18) minimum wage. Disney has faced heavy criticism over worker pay and was even sued last year for not giving cast members living wages. It highlights the larger problem of inequality and mistreatment in the service industry they’re a part of; one that’s more enhanced by online commenters telling people like them to “just quit” if they don’t want to go back to work at Disneyland. But with a national unemployment rate of 13%, which has hit their industry the hardest, a lot of them don’t have that option.
Besides, many of these workers adore their jobs and said they’d give anything to be able to go back, so long as it wasn’t during a pandemic. There’s a specific kind of love cast members have for working at Disneyland, something that goes beyond pressing a button to start a thrill ride or serving food at a restaurant. It’s a belief that what they’re doing helps make the world a more magical place. “It is the most elaborate and phenomenal game of make-believe that the world has ever seen,” Jason said.
But they don’t want to die for it.