How 2020 Exposed Everything People Wanted to Ignore

October 15, 2020, 6:43 PM · Have you ever wanted to be on a theme park ride when it "broke down?"

Well, welcome to 2020 — the year the global themed entertainment industry stopped, and we got to see the whole thing with the work lights on.

I evacuated a lot of guests from Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Pirates of the Caribbean over the years that I worked at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. Those "in-show exits" actually inspired me to create Theme Park Insider — after I saw how happy some guests were to get an "insider's" backstage tour of the attractions as I led them out to the exit.

But other fans hated the backstage view. For them, anything that revealed how the attraction worked ruined the "magic" of the experience. They wanted to get what they considered a deeply unpleasant experience over as quickly as possible and in a way that showed them as little of the backstage workings as possible.

After a few trips, I learned to poll guests if they wanted the "tour" before I escorted them off the ride. Most of the time, they could not wait for me to finish asking before exclaiming "yes!" But every now and then, a group would politely ask me to keep quiet and to get them the heck out of Dodge, ASAP.

The lesson? As always, people are different and want different experiences from life.

The challenge for themed entertainment designers is to provide that diversity of experience in a way that helps everyone who visits feel satisfied rather than frustrated. As an operations host evacuating guests, I had to take on that same challenge in trying to help a wide variety of guests get over the disappointment of not being able to experience an attraction the way that its designers had intended.

And as the editor of a website that covers the theme park industry, I face that challenge in trying to report the news and provide insight to an audience — you — who comes to Theme Park Insider from different generations, communities, nations, and life experiences. When the pandemic hit the U.S. theme park industry in mid-March, I did not change course but just doubled-down on the coverage. You got daily Covid-19 updates and then extra features after the parks closed, designed to provide a (sometimes literal) taste of the parks experience, including an online cooking show and virtual road trip posts.

But when it became apparent that the closures would last months, not weeks, it became impossible for me to avoid what the work lights were showing. This pandemic — and resulting collapse of the global tourism industry — has exposed a lot of stuff that a lot of people have been very happy to overlook. Among them:

* Cast members, team members, ambassadors, and model citizens really are ultimately just employees to their companies — paid workers who lose their hours, and eventually their jobs, when the guests stop coming. When a loss of income threatens a company's bottom line, all that talk about being the "heart of the magic" goes away, and theme parks dump their workers just like any other industry does.

* And even when they were getting hours, theme park employees don't get paid jack when compared with C-suite managers at their companies. And the bigger the company, often the bigger the pay gap. We are talking ratios of up to 1,000 to 1 here. Do the math, and you'll see that an executive who takes a permanent 50 percent cut to their salary could save hundreds of entry-level employees' jobs. But who does that? (Crickets.) The pay gap means laid-off workers face devastation that people making six- and seven- and even eight- and nine-figure salaries cannot begin to imagine.

* For as much as parks spend on labor, it's capital that drives attendance in this business. But even the biggest parks are limited in their ability to spend money on new rides and expansions when guest spending dries up. This pandemic has forced layoffs not just in parks but at many of the design and manufacturing companies that support theme parks' new attractions and developments. Should this downturn continue, we could lose a generation of potential theme park design talent to other industries, as firms stop hiring and recruiting.

* Running a theme park is inherently a political act. Operating any business than employs thousands of people and generates millions, if not billions, of dollars in revenue each year requires political engagement with local, state, and national authorities. If you ignore politics when covering theme parks, you'll never get the complete "insider's" view of their design and operation.

Beyond the parks, the pandemic and its aftermath have exposed societal faults that deeply affect the design and operation of themed entertainment, as well.

* Systemic racism endures in America, and the theme park and creative industries are not exempt from that. Attractions have perpetuated stereotypes, causing damage to some when they should have been providing comfort to all.

* While many people are willing to help make experiences better for those around them, some people can act like sociopathic jerks. (To be fair, anyone who has ever worked on stage in a theme park already knew this.)

* Labor is discounted and disregarded in the United States, which ultimately leaves this country susceptible to boom-and-bust cycles and social breakdowns, such as what we are experiencing right now.

* And to that end, tying health care to employment has to rank among one of the stupidest public-policy decisions of all time. Even if you support private health care over a government-provided system, making people lose their health care when they lose their job during a pandemic is beyond senseless — it's just cruel and dangerous to make scramble for replacement coverage, especially when so many doctors have restricted practices in this moment. Workers and their families deserve better than this.

The work lights are on right now, not just for the theme park industry, but for our entire society. Whether you choose to ignore that — to rush past the social and political machinery to get back to the happy facades on the other side — or to stop, look, and think about how to fix what has gone wrong... is up to you.

I'm just here to tell you what I see as we walk together.

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Replies (14)

October 15, 2020 at 7:33 PM

Robert, good article. It is always good to take a step back and look at the big picture. These observations can apply to other industries and aspects of our society as well. The pandemic has been like an earthquake disrupting our everyday life; causing death and fear but also exposing the weak points in our social, political and economic systems. However, from the pain and disruption there is also an opportunity to learn and grow. A light must be shone to in order to bring about real change. The corporations that own and operate theme parks have a choice to make about their futures. Hopefully they will take the worker pay scale gap to heart and restructure for a stronger future.

October 16, 2020 at 12:09 AM

A lot of the worlds problems can be solved by people looking at their situation and do what makes the most sense for their situation. Countries like Norway, Switzerland, and Singapore are basically dots on the world stage with low populations and don't have much going their way in any kind of political power, but they have managed to become rich and have good healthcare and very low to no poverty because they just realized what was going to make them rich and they did it.

Of course its not going to be the same tactics for every country, but I really do believe with good education and hard work and dedication over a few generations there is no reason every country can't enjoy widespread prosperity with the knowledge and resources we have today. I have to admit sadly looking at what is going on in the world I am not very optimistic about that happening anytime soon lol.

October 16, 2020 at 12:26 AM

Good work here Robert. It's not just theme parks, it's stunning to realize scores of systems we took for granted could crack so easily for something huge. Look at the movie/TV industry reeling right now to Broadway, sports and more. Just amazing to imagine how vastly different the world would be had so many smarter decisions been made eight months ago and, of course, had people accepted some short-term hardship better than the much longer term agony that's covered the world.

Thanks for this and yes, I do hope the one good thing to come of all this is a better appreciation for not taking things for granted like we once did and a "new normal" comes out of it.

October 16, 2020 at 4:23 AM

If 50% of the C-level didn’t show up to work tomorrow, I don’t believe there would be a negative impact. If anything, their private office staff might be more productive.

If 10% of the front line staff didn’t show up, everyone would notice.

October 16, 2020 at 7:47 AM

I worked many years for Rabobank. At that time it was the only triple A bank in the world. It's a so called private bank and it has a no profit policy. Do they make profit, yes, a lot. They need money to invest in security, new products and more. Above that we got a generous wage but no insane bonusses. We got extra care packages (for instance an insurance that adds money to your disability payment up to 80% of your former salary and I am thankful for that now).
I worked there at one moment as contract manager, dealing with how much we paid for the service and looking for insight of the company who did some services for us (they where a UK company). It was tough to get insight in what we actually paid for. I explained Rabobanks policy regarding contracts; Pay for what is delivered plus profit for that company as we want them to invest in their company and be successful to so in return we will get even better services from them. We ended up not extending the contract and do it inhouse because they didn't showed us the information I asked for.
What happens to the rest of the profit that is made? It is given away to local clubs and projects. Improving the life of people in the Netherlands (cultural, social, nature, sport).
Why can't every company be like that? Everyone a good healthy income, a nice 36 hour work-week so you are happy and rested to do an excellente job.

October 16, 2020 at 10:58 AM

@OT: To put it simply, American culture isn't quite the same as abroad in many aspects and that sadly leads to ignoring such great ideas.

October 16, 2020 at 11:37 AM

Good article, Robert. You've made a number of interesting points. As to healthcare, I am reminded of a particular scaremongering TV commercial which is being aired frequently here, admonishing people not to vote for a candidate who is in favor of a universal healthcare system because that would eliminate employer-paid health insurance. Well, employer-paid health insurance is good only as long as one is employed and many people are obviously not. So I completely agree that tying insurance to employment is a bad idea. I personally have health insurance through a government-provided system (Medicare) and could not be happier. Before I became eligible for Medicare I had copays for everything and now I pay nothing other than a portion of the cost of prescription medicine.

October 16, 2020 at 12:07 PM

Robert wrote:
>tying health care to employment has to rank among one of the stupidest public-policy decisions of all time.

This bears expanding upon, since many Americans don't realize *why* we do it this way, and that it's not inevitable:
https://www.marketplace.org/2017/06/28/how-did-we-end-health-insurance-being-tied-our-jobs/

If you understand this origin, and if you've ever closely considered the choices offered by your employer during annual enrollment, then it's easy to see through political scare-ads of the "you'll lose your employer-sponsored health plan!" variety.

(Straying from theme parks into sociology, but ... Like a lot of public policy, it made sense *at the time*, but the failure is getting *stuck* with it -- the model created financial incentives for new entities, i.e., the entire U.S. private health insurance industry; those new incumbents don't want the sweet gravy-train to stop, and there's no painless way to jump to the track-not-taken. More generally, a lot of "the American dream" is removing alternatives to force you to choose something convenient *for the large-biz seller*, then making it desirable, Stockholm Syndrome-style. You *want* the expense of private car-ownership and the hassle of maintaining a lawn, don't you?)

October 16, 2020 at 1:08 PM

Thank you for this, Robert.

October 16, 2020 at 1:08 PM

Thank you for this, Robert.

October 16, 2020 at 2:38 PM

I am employed full-time, but my health care coverage is AWFUL. I made one visit two years ago (in which case I found I was anemic), and while some was covered, most wast not (and I was told that I had hit my annual cap). This year, I had one ambulance ride to the hospital. The $2,500 ambulance ride was not covered AT ALL and my hospital bill fell under "we got you on your chest X-ray, but that's it."

And this is me being employed, WITH insurance. I can only imagine how much it costs others less fortunate than myself.

We keep reading this site because, at the base, we are theme park fans, and you are a fantastic source for theme park news. But, speaking personally and not for the fandom as a whole, part of the reason I love this site is that you're not afraid to take a stand when it is warranted. You care about people more than you care about the parks (which you are obviously passionate about). And I cannot help but respect your "people first" approach in these times.

October 16, 2020 at 3:07 PM

Since we're talking about Healthcare.... 4 and a half years ago, some neighbour of mine decides to blow himself up whilst making canabis hash oil (https://www.firescotland.gov.uk/news-campaigns/news/2016/03/update-tenement-blaze-in-fairburn-street,-glasgow.aspx Big corner windows second from the top, that was me. I and the wife were taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital treated for minor burns and smoke inhillation, kept in hospital overnight for observation, given a chest xray, and returned to hospital after a few days to get the burns redressed. Total cost= £0.

Well, thats a slight lie. Of course we pay taxes, and since my wife is a canadian immigrant, there's an added fee you pay on top of the visa intended for the health service.

A year and a half ago, the wife feels strange down one side of her body. Ends up barely able to move one side of her body. Take her to the small local hosptial where she's given a CAT Scan, no issues found, held there for a few days until space in a bigger hospital for a MRI, and Lumbarpuncture. MS diagnosed. Steroids given, Sent home after a few days, still feels weak, goes back, another round of steroids, and then comes home. A few months later preventative medication (Disase modifingh drugs) is discussed, a few months later, first round is dispatched. 12 months after that COVID hits, and those were delayed another 6 months (As the drugs basically reboot your immune system, they must have figured rebooting the immune system in a pandemic is a bad idea). She's now good for the next few years and no return of symptoms is expected. Total cost to us £0

Meanwhille, I was snoring like a chainsaw. From initial GP consultation to sleep study, to consultation to discuss potential sleep apnoea diagnosis and then delivery of a CPAP machine, took about 12 months. Total Cost to us £0 - didn't even pay for the machine.


Where am I going with this? This is both sides of so called "Socialised Medicine", or the UK's NHS. When you need it, its there, leave your wallet at home. However, prioritisation is on need, not ability to pay... So if its not life threatening, sometimes you have to wait.

I can't think of a more humane way to allocate those resources. Those who need more (not have more), get more.

October 17, 2020 at 4:54 AM

Robert, probably the best article you have written this year, an equal measure of head and heart. The reality with all profit-making companies is to make a profit. It really is that simple. The bigger the corporation the more expectation and pressure on the executives to keep the stakeholders happy. If they don't then they will be replaced with people who can even if they are beacons of social justice and equality. They, ultimately, are only custodians of the company.

If we think Disney and Universal are any different we are deluded. They are major corporations with boards that are mandated to deliver sustainable profits for their stakeholders and they will undertake all necessary measures to achieve this. During difficult times there are always casualties.

If we all knew how these corporations really operated, regardless of Covid, our illusions would be shattered so, maybe, ignorance is bliss to keep the magic alive? Look how Eisner devalued the real Disney experience to increase profitability. His first decade, he was lauded as a revelation by the stakeholders, to the purests he was far less popular.........but, he delivered!

Ultimately, major players in the theme park industry are run no differently from any other major corporation in any other industry. Maximising profits is their only real objective.

October 18, 2020 at 11:01 AM

Another excellent article, Robert.

And yes, 2020 has gone a long way toward ruining my perception of Disney. For years I've defended it against charges of being a heartless corporate monster, but this year has ended my defense. From Iger and the rest of their lily-white management soaking up millions while frontline workers suffer, to Chapek's unbelievably obnoxious, nearly Trumpian attacks on California's leadership, Disney just looks worse and worse.

I started out 2020 super bummed that our very special April Disneyland trip got cancelled. Now I've almost stopped caring when they reopen, I'm so bummed with them as a Company.

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