'Magical Disney experience' going away? What Disney's layoffs mean for theme park guests

David Oliver, USA TODAY
·6 min read

The happiest place on Earth is a lot less happy this week after Disney announced it would lay off 28,000 staffers from its parks division.

"As hard as they try to make those cutbacks only affect behind-the-scenes issues, it eventually comes to the guest," Dennis Speigel, founder and CEO of International Theme Park Services, told USA TODAY. "And by that, I mean services and experience."

Disney's layoffs will alter already topsy-turvy theme park visits for guests, if they go at all. Attendance at all parks that reopened amid the coronavirus pandemic has generally been disappointing. Florida’s Walt Disney World, which was operating its four theme parks with reduced hours, moved to an even shorter daily schedule this month.

Once guests do return, they should brace themselves for more than just mask-wearing rules.

More details on job cuts: Disney parks to lay off 28,000 workers in California, Florida

What Disney layoffs mean: Don't expect special perks to come back

Though Disney World reopened in July, Disneyland has yet to reopen, awaiting guidelines, to the chagrin of the city of Anaheim, employees and the California Attractions and Parks Association (not to mention eager guests).

In a letter to employees, Josh D'Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, Experience and Product, said his management team worked hard to try to avoid layoffs. They cut expenses, suspended projects and modified operations, but it wasn’t enough, given Disneyland's closure and limits on the number of people allowed into Disney World because of social distancing restrictions and other pandemic-related measures, he said.

This means some perks aren't likely to come back.

"These layoffs mean that Disney's planning to keep its park and resort operations about where they are now," park expert Len Testa, co-author of "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World," told USA TODAY. "In particular, it means that we're not likely to see the return of longer, pre-pandemic park hours, no special perks like extra time in the parks for people staying at Disney hotels and no widespread use of Disney's FASTPASS ride reservation system." Park hours will be briefly extended for the holiday season in December, though some events are canceled.

Two-thirds of the 28,000 layoffs were part-time cast members – such as those in Disney's College Program, according to Testa. They also included salaried employees and nonunion hourly workers, Disney officials said. The company will provide severance packages for some employees.

Officials with the union that represents the actors who play Disney characters at the theme parks said they were having conversations with Disney officials about how they would be affected, according to Actors’ Equity Association. Officials with the Service Trades Council Union, which represents 43,000 workers at Disney World in Florida, said they were having similar conversations.

Hmm: Theme parks could go mask-free next year if rapid COVID-19 testing is in place, ex-Disney staffer says

Special Disney celebrations: 'You're going to see those cut back'

There is nothing quite like a Disney trip, as both fans and first-timers alike will tell you. But the coronavirus pandemic has altered the ability to keep the magic alive.

Labor is typically 50% of a theme park's operating budget, and its single largest expense, according to Speigel.

"Disney's the master at delivering a good time, and they have been since the day they opened the gate," Speigel said. "But like everybody else, they're in this situation where they have to take these measures."

Many of the special celebrations will be no more. "Those more immersive, more hands-on involvement-type experiences – parades, fireworks, larger gathering type of programs that were designed to entertain but also keep the guests in the park longer – you're going to see those cut back," Speigel said. "And we've already begun seeing that."

Events that typically draw large crowds are going "on hiatus" this year, such as Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party and Candlelight Processional at Epcot, which is in line with social distancing measures.

The Castle Dream Lights holiday show will be replaced with special projection effects; Cinderella Castle "will be transformed with a rotating series of designs including a whimsical Christmas sweater and a regal overlay of red, green and gold ornamentation," Laurel Slater, manager of communications for Walt Disney World Public Affairs, wrote in a blog post. Disney has developed pandemic-conscious entertainment options for guests, including distanced photo opportunities.

Sigh: No Mickey's Christmas party this year: Disney World cancels some holiday events because of COVID-19

Disney 'already working with a skeleton crew'

Other layoffs include Disney's Grand Floridian and Port Orleans resorts musicians. "While those musicians were not called back to their jobs when the resorts reopened, guests returning to the resorts in 2021 may notice they're gone," Testa said.

"I think these layoffs were the acknowledgment that it's not going to be safe for many months yet to have guests from all over the world pack into a hotel lobby to listen to music," Testa said. "And that's understandable."

Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com, doesn't know whether the layoffs will affect guests' experiences more than what's already changed. "It's the reduced capacity and lower demand that's driving the layoffs, after all," Niles told USA TODAY. "But the layoffs will hurt Disney's ability to scale up quickly, should consumer demand return."

"As it is, Disney is already working with a skeleton crew," said Heather Adamczak, news editor of social media and sales for the Theme Park Professor website. "Cast members are already spread too thin these days. They have been asked to do even more work and now have to put up with guests that still want that 'magical Disney experience' they paid for. The job of dealing with guests who don't want to wear a mask is overwhelming."

She said parades feature 75% fewer dancers, and some dancers opted for other jobs in the park, hoping they will soon be called back. She predicted cast member attitudes would change as they saw friends and co-workers lose work.

"I met a balloon handler in Magic Kingdom this week that watched a cavalcade come through and danced to the music seamlessly with tears in his eyes," she said. "I asked him if that used to be him, and he said, 'It still is me. It will always be me. This is just temporary.' But, you could tell he wasn't sure."

Contributing: Josh Rivera and Rasha Ali, USA TODAY; Arthur Levine, The Associated Press

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Walt Disney World COVID-19 layoffs: What it means for guests