- Walt Disney World in Florida began its staggered reopening process earlier this month.
- Over 432,700 people in Florida have tested positive for COVID-19, putting the state ahead of New York in confirmed cases.
- Business Insider spoke to four cast members who have recently been called back to Walt Disney World regarding their experiences returning to work with new guidelines amid the pandemic.
- Each reported feeling that Disney had thus far succeeded in creating safe conditions for reopening but described a fundamental shift in their jobs, with physical and social barriers making it harder to keep the magic alive at the “Happiest Place on Earth.”
- “We’re encouraged by our guests’ positive feedback and cast members’ diligence for our phased reopening and are grateful for their support of the new measures we’ve added,” a Disney spokesperson said in a statement. “We are taking a cautious and deliberate approach which allows us to evaluate and adjust along the way, as the situation evolves.”
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For Kristen Gainey, the pandemic became real the day Disney World closed.
“To think that something that barely closes for hurricanes and stuff is shut down, was kind of crazy,” said the Walt Disney World cosmetologist who has worked in the Florida theme park for the last eight years.
Gainey was one of 43,000 Disney workers, or “cast members,” who were furloughed from work in April after the parks closed in March for the first time since the 9/11 attacks. Now, after nearly three months, Gainey and thousands of other Central Florida-based employees have been called back to staff the parks during a staggered reopening process that began July 11.
“We’re encouraged by our guests’ positive feedback and cast members’ diligence for our phased reopening and are grateful for their support of the new measures we’ve added,” a Disney spokesperson said in a statement. “We are taking a cautious and deliberate approach which allows us to evaluate and adjust along the way, as the situation evolves.”
Business Insider spoke to four cast members who have recently been called back to Walt Disney World regarding their experiences returning to work with new guidelines amid the pandemic. Each reported feeling that Disney had thus far succeeded in creating safe conditions for reopening. At the same time, cast members described a fundamental shift in their jobs, with physical and social barriers making it harder to keep the magic alive at the “Happiest Place on Earth.”
How Disney readied its parks for a pandemic
Before its staggered reopening process began in early July, Disney said it would limit the daily capacity of guests in its parks, increase social distancing and cleaning measures, and require all visitors over the age of two and cast members to wear face masks while in the parks. Many of the new safety procedures were implemented in conjunction with Unite Here! Local 362, a union representing 5,000 Disney World park greeters, attractions workers, and custodians.
Armed with new safety guidelines, materials, and protocols, Disney reopened two of its four parks on July 11. The next day, Florida hit a new record for daily coronavirus cases with more than 15,000 infections.
“To their credit, Disney is being very responsive,” said Unite Here! Local 362 president Eric Clinton, who has worked closely with Disney throughout the entire closing, furlough, and reopening process. Disney said that it still shapes and updates its safety protocol based on feedback from cast members and guidance from public health and government authorities.
In negotiating conditions for the return to work, the union bargained for Disney to provide each cast member with a thermometer upon request to self-monitor and for a more lenient attendance policy that does not penalize employees for missing extra days due to illness.
Speaking to Business Insider from within a routine check-in at Animal Kingdom last week, Clinton said the union also addresses problems as they arise in real-time. For example, Disney World recently updated its initial guidelines and banned guests from eating while walking after feedback from cast members via the union.
“There’s trepidation involved,” said Paul Cox, an entertainment technician who works in Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports. Cox was called back to work at the end of June to assist with the opening of the NBA season in the complex.
“But I do believe that it is as safe as possible given the current circumstances,” he said.
A Disney veteran of over 10 years and the president of IATSE Local 631, a union that represents stagehands and show technicians at Disney World, Cox was also involved in negotiations regarding reopening. So far, the technician said he is impressed with the results.
“I feel safer going to work than I do going to Publix,” a local grocery store, said Cox, a sentiment that is shared by the other three cast members that spoke to Business Insider.
Bill Coan, CEO and president of entertainment solutions and technology company ITEC Entertainment and a former attractions developer for Walt Disney Imagineering, said the reopening is just another testament to the capabilities of the mammoth company, which he regards as the “Gold Standard” when it comes to entertainment and safety.
“I would say that it’s a significant success,” said Coan, whose company developed a health and safety solution for theme parks to safely reopen.
Despite feeling safe, cast members said fundamental changes have made for a new atmosphere in the parks. On top of learning new safety and cleaning protocols, getting used to the new environment at the “Happiest Place on Earth” has been more difficult than some cast members expected.
At the most basic level, the mask requirement makes it harder for employees to convey a sign of friendliness via a simple smile. In other cases, the restrictions are less tangible, like not being able to take a family photo for a party. This small gesture is something Animal Kingdom attractions worker Jessica Lella said she has missed the most since returning to the park.
“It’s a total different atmosphere,” said Candyice Montville, a food and beverage worker at Disney’s Animal Kingdom park. Montville described how she used to dance with and high-five guests regularly to make them feel welcome during pre-pandemic times. Now, she explained, such interactions are considered risky.
“That’s a challenge for us too and for them, because we’re all social people,” the Disney cast member of two years said.
Disney said it is working with cast members to rethink guest services by using techniques such as smiling with their eyes, waving from a distance, and encouraging selfies among guests.
Meanwhile, some of the theme parks’ 70,000 cast members have still not been called back to the park, including about 750 performers represented by the New York-based Actors’ Equity Association. According to Disney, the decision to call cast members back is based on a variety of factors, though the plan is to bring more back eventually. The company added that it is still paying health care premiums for eligible cast members who are furloughed.
Still, some fortunate enough to return to work have described feeling uncomfortable with their luck.
“I almost have a sense of survivor’s guilt every day when I go to work.” Cox, the entertainment technician, related. Gainey also described feeling a sense of survivor’s guilt, especially as unemployment benefits begin to run out.
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“We’re very grateful to be at our jobs and to be back and it’s so nice to see everyone,” the cosmetologist said, describing how many of her guest-facing roles — like styling hair for a Disney-based wedding or in the currently-closed Harmony Barber Shop on Main Street — have been halted for now. “But it’s very, very different. And stressful.”
Luckily for Disney employees, keeping up a positive attitude isn’t anything they aren’t used to.
“We’re here to make magic, regardless of the situation,” Montville said. “Because people come to Disney to have fun.”