March 23, 2020
I want to preface this article with a little bit of backstory about myself. I've been a Disney World Cast Member since 2016 when I participated in the Disney College Program. I've made tons of friends over the last few years, many whom have come and gone. I've seen the parks during every holiday, festival, hurricanes, and the opening of several new areas and attractions. But I have never seen anything like the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. Because of this shutdown, I've had to say good-bye to dozens of people I probably won't ever see again--many of whom left before I could say anything at all. I had a college program friend stay with me after she was laid off because the earliest flight she could find was two days after they had to be out of their housing units. I've spent the past two weeks at home, trying to find out if I'm going to be paid while I'm out of work, and if so, how much. As glad as I am that the Walt Disney Company decided to put the safety of its guests and cast members first, it's been a confusing and nerve-wracking waiting game for updates.
On Thursday, March 12, 2020, the happiest and most magical places on Earth received news that shook guests and employees alike to their core. Disneyland and Walt Disney World announced they were closing their parks for two weeks in an attempt to combat the ever-growing COVID-19 epidemic sweeping the world. Both Shanghai and Hong Kong’s Disneyland parks had closed in January, and Disneyland Paris had been rumored to be considering the same. But never in Disney history had multiple parks closed for more than two days. California’s Disneyland had closed for a day after the JFK shooting in 1963, Florida’s Walt Disney World has had one-day closures due to hurricanes, and both parks had closed following the 9/11 attacks. But this announcement, stating that both parks, and Disneyland Paris, were to close for at least two weeks, was unprecedented.
As if that wasn’t shocking enough, news very quickly followed that thousands of Disney College Program (DCP) participants had been told they had 4 days to pack and leave housing. In simple terms, they had been laid off, with a questionable option of being allowed to come back and finish after the two weeks. The DCP is essentially an internship for college students that can last anywhere from 5 months to a year and often leads to these students going full or part-time with Disney. In addition to the cast members, guests in the resorts were also told they had a few days to pack and return home with the news that Disney was closing the resorts and shopping districts, in contrast to an earlier decision to keep those open.
Sunday, March 15, was the final day of normal operation before the two-week hiatus and a new heaviness hung over Walt Disney World. The cast members tried to do business as usual, but hushed conversations were held behind guests’ backs while questions without answers were asked between each other. Meanwhile, there were as many guests enjoying the park as there were those concerned about the severity of the ongoing pandemic. The magic seemingly could not keep out the worries of the outside world. Among this crowd were the DCP students, out in full force enjoying the last bit of Disney magic before facing the daunting task of telling their friends good-bye and trying to figure out next steps. Behind the scenes was a flurry of activity as various locations began organizing and sanitizing their areas while preparing to shut down for two weeks, if not longer.
Pay and schedules were, and still kind of are, up in the air for cast members. It took several days to receive a solid answer about how full-time cast members would be paid in comparison to part-time or seasonal cast members, or if we’d be paid at all. Schedules, normally set to drop on Saturday nights, were pushed back to Tuesday the first week…and then again for the second week. This delay, combined with the various “social distancing” and closure rules, has raised the question of whether or not Walt Disney World can, or will, actually be opened on April 1. Although cast members are being paid, it’s hard to say if Disney will continue to pay if the closure continues longer than originally scheduled.
In addition, the mass exodus of the DCP participants adds another uncertain factor to everything. Those in the DCP make up a decent amount of the workforce at Disney World, and the international participants much up much of Epcot’s World Showcase. Disney’s decision to lay them off left thousands scrambling to find a place in Orlando to stay or to find a way home, in less than a week. Although Disney did apparently offer assistance to anyone who desperately needed it and sent out an email asking participants to fill out a form if they’d like to come back after the two weeks to finish their programs, it leaves more questions unanswered. What if the park is closed for longer than two weeks? Will these participants be placed back in their original locations or will they be reassigned somewhere new? Is it worth it to train them again for a new location if they only have another month or two to work there? What will happen if hundreds of them aren’t able or willing to come back?
While the cast members, DCP students, and guests all felt the pain of the Disney parks closing, the Walt Disney Company felt it even worse. According to the Orlando Sentinel, if Disney World is closed longer than the two weeks claimed, it could cost the company $1.4 billion in revenue. With current CDC regulations preventing gatherings of more than 10 people, it doesn’t look like Disney can reopen on April 1, even if they wanted to. As new information is revealed each day with various states calling for shelter-in-place and Florida calling for the closure of all beaches and state parks, there’s still no official update from Disney about the future of the parks. With California’s shelter-in-place law going into effect without a set end date, Disneyland may remain empty for weeks to come. Shanghai and Hong Kong Disneyland have been closed since January, and with Disneyland in California shuttered for the foreseeable future, it’s unclear if Walt Disney World will operate alongside its other parks and stay closed or if it will reopen (if able to) in order to offset financial losses and guest complaints. At this point, everything is a waiting game for cast and guests alike.
Disney did what it had to do—it made the safety and well-being of thousands of cast members and millions of guests a priority. However, even with an unprecedented event like this, the way Disney went about it could have been handled much better. More communication with cast members about pay, scheduling, and current decisions. More help offered to DCP participants who had nowhere to go, especially those who lived abroad and worked as International College Program students. Guests were told their vacations were canceled midway through, and many dreams were crushed as people found out they had no vacation to look forward to. Although the official word from Disney World is still an April 1 reopening, there’s been much speculation and doubt as to whether or not that can physically happen. For now, Disney says they will continue to pay employees while out of work and are working hard to help guests reschedule plans and accommodations while dealing with millions of dollars in losses.
One thing is for sure—with most of Central Florida employed by Disney or one of the other theme parks, if these closures last much longer, we could see a massive change in the economy of central Florida.
If you have planned an upcoming vacation to Disney World, there are several important things to note.