Fans escape reality at Disneyland before it closes. For service workers, uncertainty abounds

Priscella Vega
Rainy weather and the fear of the spread of the coronavirus kept crowds sparse at Disneyland on Thursday.  (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

When Anna Bautista learned that the "Happiest Place on Earth" would shut down Friday for the remainder of the month, she immediately cleared her calendar and texted her sister:

"Let's go. Last day to go to Disney before they close."

A minute later, her sister, Diana, was on board.

They booked a hotel near the Disneyland Resort, packed their suitcases and left their San Diego home Thursday night after work to try to squeeze in as much time as possible inside the park.

"Anything for the Mouse," Anna said Friday night as she waited to watch the final fireworks spectacle in front of the Sleeping Beauty Castle that was ultimately canceled because of bad weather.

For several dedicated Disney fans, it was clear it would take much more than gloomy skies and the COVID-19 pandemic to keep them from enjoying the last hurrah Friday before the Anaheim theme park temporarily shut down following Gov. Gavin Newsom's recommendation that gatherings of 250 or more people be canceled across the state.

Disneyland was still the place where people of all ages could visit to escape life's cold realities. Souvenir shops along Main Street, U.S.A., bustled with tourists and locals who bought limited edition collectibles as well as ponchos to shield themselves from the rain. Families and couples waited in line near the Mad Hatter gift shop to pose for photos with characters such as Goofy and Minnie Mouse.

It seemed like a normal day during the off-season, but small details revealed how much fear over the spread of the virus had seeped into people's daily lives — even at the theme park famous the world over for creating fantasy and magic since 1955.

Some visitors wore masks or gloves. Signs installed near bathroom sinks encouraged people to wash their hands for 20 seconds. Cast members and tourists alike could be overheard talking about how they had to amend vacation plans and work shifts.

Usually crowded attractions such as Indiana Jones Adventure, Splash Mountain and Star Tours had five-minute wait times. The Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, inside the new Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land that drew in record crowds when it opened last year, had only a 10-minute wait.

It's well known among annual passholders that rainy days are usually the best days to visit the amusement park, so much so that it often defeats the purpose of going on those days — except for this Friday.

"Lines are shorter than usual; I've never seen it like this," Diana Bautista said. "The boarding group for Rise of the Resistance is impossible to get after 8:03 a.m., and when we got our pass, it was around 8:12 a.m. So we got those passes, and we just started walking around Fantasyland and spreading out from there."

At dusk, Sleeping Beauty's Castle's baby pink and royal blue hues popped against the sky's dark, gloomy background. With a horde of people all trying to get the same photo of the castle, Jose Carlos Vazquez, 26, and his girlfriend, Mariana Zauzeta, 25, took advantage of the moment with open real estate.

Vazquez snapped photos of his girlfriend, dressed in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and wearing pink lollipop Minnie Mouse ears, facing the castle while she extended her arm back and held her boyfriend's hand.

Neither the rain nor the virus were going to make them cancel the quick getaway they had planned a month in advance, especially given that Vazquez had promised his girlfriend, he said. The couple flew from Sinaloa, Mexico, to Tijuana and rented a car to drive to San Diego and up the coast.

"It's a risk we had to take," he said in Spanish. "We're healthy."

A family of eight shared similar sentiments about their trip to Disneyland. They had planned their trip from Arizona to Anaheim since December as a final family vacation before Devan Heilman joined the Navy. With Friday being the last day the park would be open, Heilman said, they booked a separate hotel and were forced to amend their itinerary.

"We haven't been to Disney in quite some time, and we're all big Star Wars fans, and experiencing this is an opportunity you can't miss," Heilman said. "It's like mecca for Star War fans. It's a must-see, once-in-your-lifetime experience."

Heilman, 21, and his brother Garrett Heilman, 18, broke off from their family and spent the majority of their time inside Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. Dressed in a beige Jedi tunic and carrying a red Darth Vader lightsaber, Garrett strategized with Devan, who held his blue Anakin Skywalker lightsaber with pride, about how they'd pose in front of the Millennium Falcon for photos.

Then two park cast members outfitted as Stormtroopers zeroed in on Garrett, his toy weapon emanating the red light of the Sith.

"Very impressive. I'm sure the supreme leader would agree," the soldiers told him. "Your allegiance is noted."

Exiting the Star Wars land and heading back into Critter Country, one boy sang out loud, "Coronavirus can't stop us; if it does we'll kick its butt!"

Disneyland's magic, however, didn't appear to extend beyond its gates. Though Disney said it would continue to pay cast members during the shutdown, outside the park, uncertainty lingered for service workers employed by restaurants and hotels along Harbor Boulevard.

The effects were visible Friday along the boulevard, which is typically congested with foot and vehicular traffic throughout the day.

The area looked more like a ghost town Friday afternoon. Scattered motorists zoomed by. Hotel shuttles occasionally passed to unload a handful of guests. Sidewalks were mostly empty.

Disneyland's closure marks only the fourth time it has fully suspended operations in its history — the others being after 9-11, in the wake of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and the national day of mourning after President Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

"Disney is our business," said a longtime Candy Cane Inn employee who wasn't authorized to talk to reporters.

The family-owned hotel, which offers a complimentary shuttle to the park for guests not interested in walking less than a mile down the boulevard, immediately felt the effects of Disneyland's closure.

The front desk employee was slammed Thursday with calls from tourists who wanted to cancel their reservations. By Friday, only 12 of the 171 rooms were occupied.

Worry over the slowdown was mutual among service workers in the area — some were already hearing they would be transferred to another location or have their hours cut; others were encouraged to take extended vacation time.

Octavio Rodriguez, 48, recently quit another hotel job to work at Anaheim Desert Inn and Suites, a bigger hotel in a prime location across from the walkway toward Disneyland.

As a new employee, he's tasked with handling laundry, but the Westminster resident said he planned to apply for a front desk position once there was an opening. With 25 years of experience in the industry, he knew he could move up.

Instead, he's being forced to move on to Plan B.

"I'm basically visiting previous jobs, trying to go back to those places, which [are] farther from Disneyland," Rodriguez said Friday afternoon while pulling white sheets out of the dryer. The day before, he and his wife had spent about $300 at Ross and Food 4 Less for groceries, clothes and other necessities, not thinking they'd be tight on finances soon after.

The gravity of the situation didn't hit him until one of his daughters told him his hotel could shut down.

"'What are you talking about?' I was like, 'What do you mean the hotel is going to shut down?' " Rodriguez recalled. "That's right — all of the customers, we get from there. My imagination is it's going to empty the area, empty the street. There's going to be no people around this."

Rodriguez had been so focused on his work, he said, that he didn't realize business had started to slow down. His son told him that his school, Anaheim High, would also be temporarily closing.

"He just told me starting tomorrow, no class for the next two weeks," Rodriguez said.

Co-worker Araceli Montes, a cleaner for the hotel, tried to focus all her energy on her work for the day. Her daughter was also recently told she'd have to stay home from school.

"I'd be lying to you if I said I had a plan in mind," the 39-year-old single mother said in Spanish as she prepared to mop the bathroom floor.