Who Is to Blame for Walt Disney World's Layoffs?

October 28, 2020, 3:23 PM · When Walt Disney World's theme parks reopened in July, many of their popular stage shows remained closed. This week, Disney sent layoff notices to the cast of many of those shows, dashing hopes for their return anytime soon.

The Actors Equity union has reported that Disney has laid off 720 of the 780 cast members it represents. Layoff notices have gone out to cast members for Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage, Festival of the Lion King, Finding Nemo the Musical, Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, and Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue — effectively closing these shows indefinitely.

Does that mean fans have seen the last of these productions? Not necessarily. The union's agreement with Disney allows these cast members to be recalled at any time through the end of next year. But the longer that cast members remain laid off, the greater the likelihood that they will move on to look for and — one hopes — find other employment. Moving from furlough to layoff means losing your company-provided health insurance, and with a pandemic raging, no one wants to be without that coverage. Eventually, unemployment benefits run out, too.

So what will it take to get the shows back? Disney did not cut these productions and lay off these cast members because it could not stage these productions safely. Staggered seating in the audience, mandatory mask usage, and some creative changes to staging would have allowed that. No, Disney walked away from these shows because it could not stage them profitably at current park attendance levels.

Think about what you pay, per day, to get into a Disney World theme park. Now think what you would pay for a ticket to a Broadway-style show or live concert. Disney's top shows can cost as much to stage as some of those productions. But Disney is also offering its guests multiple, expensive rides in addition to these live shows. So it needs to be welcoming a huge volume of paying guests on a daily basis — many more than who watch its live stage shows — in order to support its diverse attraction line-up.

When attendance dips, Disney saves a lot more by cutting back its labor-intensive live entertainment than it would shutting rides and animatronic shows. Disney pays the about the same for crowd-control operators either way, but it's not paying the pirates in the Caribbean or the singing dolls in Small World like it is the actors in the Finding Nemo or Indiana Jones shows. That's why you often see cuts to entertainment schedules during slower seasons in the parks.

The pandemic has brought the Walt Disney World Resort it slowest season ever. By laying off these cast members, Disney is acknowledging that it does not see attendance recovering to the level that would allow it to stage these productions profitably within the next few months. So it is cutting loose these cast members to drop the expense of continuing to pay for their benefits indefinitely while awaiting a potential attendance rebound.

Look, I work in the journalism industry, so I have seen more than my share of layoffs during my career. I have seen countless coworkers dismissed, and I have both taken buyouts and been laid off myself. It's a horrible experience that I would not wish upon any good worker — and Disney's live entertainment cast members are among the best in the business.

But, ultimately, it's not Disney's fault that these cast members lost their jobs. (Disney is not a charity that should be obligated to operate productions at a loss.) Nor is it the fault of state officials keeping parks from operating at full capacity. (Heck, Florida's governor has declared that parks can operate pretty much as they see fit now.) And it is not the fault of guests who either cannot or feel that they should not travel to Disney right now. (Disney has no right to any consumer's money.)

These cuts are the fault of a pandemic that has cost too many lives and disabled too many people in too many communities around the world, including in Central Florida. If you must blame someone for this layoff, blame people who go outside their homes — to stores and restaurants and theme parks — without a mask. Blame people who do not stay home when they are sick. Blame business operators and law enforcement and elected officials who refuse to enforce mask use. Blame news reporters and commentators who pretend that this virus is not real and dismiss efforts to contain it as overblown.

Because it is those people who have destroyed our collective opportunity to contain this virus. And without containment, the travel industry will not recover, and theme parks will not be able to justify reopening all the attractions that they offered before this pandemic hit.

Update: (Oct. 30) Walt Disney World has released a statement: "Recently, we’ve had to make some difficult decisions to reduce our workforce as the business impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic have become more long-lasting than anyone could have predicted. As a result, we’ve had to pause many live shows and entertainment experiences at our resort for longer than originally anticipated."

"Determining which shows can return and when is a complex process. As with the rest of our phased reopening, we will also consider the guidance of health officials and government agencies in determining when the time will be right to adjust capacity, and as soon as it is appropriate, we will start to bring additional entertainment back.

"Like most of our fans, we know that our beloved entertainment cast are an incredibly special and essential part of the Disney experience. We look forward to the day when we can welcome back more live entertainment to our parks, and we will share more news about these announcements as we’re able to do so."

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Replies (25)

October 28, 2020 at 3:29 PM

Disney held out for a long time keeping people on furlough hoping the business would come back with a V shape, but that's clearly not happening, so it comes down to the fact that its going to cost less to let them go and rehire them in the future rather than continue paying their healthcare until the business recovers. Parks are preparing for another dismal year in 2021.

October 28, 2020 at 3:38 PM

I hate it too but it's simply math: If your workforce exceeds the demand, then there will be cuts. I've seen it at my UPS site a few times and other jobs, it's harsh but it happens.

October 28, 2020 at 4:14 PM

Good article Robert, but you stop just short, don't you?

"If you must blame someone for this layoff, blame people who go outside their homes — to stores and restaurants and theme parks — without a mask." And who is the person encouraging those people to go out without masks? Who tells them to ignore science, ignore reality, that (as they announced yesterday) the pandemic has ended? Who?

"Blame business operators and law enforcement and elected officials who refuse to enforce mask use." Getting close! But is there any "elected official" in particular who's continually railing against mask wearing? Anyone? He makes fun of people for wearing masks, he hosts super spreader events on his lawn--what is that guy's name?

"Blame news reporters and commentators who pretend that this virus is not real and dismiss efforts to contain it as overblown." Now which network is it that says the pandemic isn't real? They tell us the pandemic is something people are lying about for political gain. It's three letters, just can't seem to recall. Though I do remember that network is affiliated with this one elected official in particular . . .

October 28, 2020 at 6:59 PM

Iger for sure knew about this virus and bailed out ahead of time when the timing was too perfect. Far away from the spotlight and still collecting. I'm not seeing any headlines of him rejecting his pay knowing all the terminated employees that work under him.

October 28, 2020 at 7:33 PM

Ironically I just saw Bob Iger about a month ago at WDW, he was dealing with the NBA stuff and going from meeting to meeting with Josh D'Amaro and George Kalogridis. He is definitely still working. i'm pretty sure he was instrumental in getting the NBA to WDW.

October 28, 2020 at 9:26 PM

Sigh...

October 28, 2020 at 9:40 PM

@frank32: Riiiiiight, Iger somehow knew this and did nothing to prepare his company for mass shutdowns, like oh, say, not have so many blockbusters set up or prep some cash in reserve or even prep safety measures.

October 29, 2020 at 2:23 AM

I have been a big fan of this site for years and even in recent months with the site bringing more of a political sense, I’ve still come back to read on the happenings in the industry that I absolutely love. What I’m trying to understand is, what really is the point of this article? What is playing the blame game really achieving here? Does anybody really feel any better by pointing fingers at who is doing wrong and what people should have done? To me all this does is add more division to an already divided audience.
Let’s face it, nobody can really be taking a victory lap here. Since the onset many places have decided to take their own strategy as to how to combat this virus and minimize its impact. Many on this site have credited Europe for how effective they were in locking down and slowing down the virus so they could reopen safely. But now we are seeing a resurgence and once again closures are being implemented. And the United States... well obviously we haven’t exactly set the example either as we are leading the way in cases and deaths. The sad thing is we see people come on here and passionately use their politics and sight their sources to make an argument as to who is right and who is wrong. But at the end of the day it does nothing. Much like the back and forth between republicans and democrats it resolves nothing.
I don’t play the blame game because frankly who am I to be judge and jury. All I can do is try to my best to keep my family and those around me safe. In a couple of years or whenever this mess is done, hopefully we can look back and learn from our missteps and identify where were the hits and misses. This will not be the last time we face this kind of challenge. Hopefully next time we will be better prepared to handle.
For now, I can only wish everyone the best and to please stay safe. My heart goes out to everyone affected by this crushing pandemic.

October 29, 2020 at 5:25 AM

Bang on Robert!

The big questions here are:

Will theme parks be allowed to return to pre-pandemic levels in the next 3 years?

Will live performances become obsolete across the top theme parks in the future?

Festival of the Lion King is one of my favourite attractions anywhere, so I sincerely hope it will only be short-term but, time will tell.

October 29, 2020 at 5:28 AM

Well if Disney is a for profit business and its decisions are justified for that reason how about laying off unneeded executives and leaders too - Let’s see equal application instead of protecting your own pot of gold

October 29, 2020 at 7:57 AM

Do you really think no executives/leaders lost their jobs? Literally one of the top leaders at Disney World, who has been there for 49 years, lost his job. Do you really think anybody "retires" at 49 years without staying for their 50 year celebration and statue? Huge swaths of salaried leaders were laid off as well (including dozens that I personally know). Your statements are totally ignorant. Disney has separated many high seniority/well paid leaders and executives.

October 29, 2020 at 8:07 AM

Oh wow after 49 years of accumulating untold wealth and most likely a handsome severance - what a sacrifice ! You are totally ignorant if you think the executive Team has been decimated after given stock rights instead of full cash comp payments - to cash in later at a huge gain. Let’s see the stats on what you claim rather than 1 poor top leader having to figure out how he’ll spend his free time.

October 29, 2020 at 8:45 AM

@Tiptop22 - It's all about utilization. With shows cancelled and/or significantly curtailed, there's literally nothing for talent to do. Why should Disney pay these employees to hang on for who knows how much longer until the parks can restart live entertainment at normal capacity and frequency? Executives at least can provide contribution amidst the pandemic as the roles and tasks most complete have not been completely eliminated. Yes, executive salaries are massive compared to live performers, but when you look at utilization, Disney can at least reap benefits from those costs, while the salaries of entertainers right now are doing nothing more than burning holes in Mickey's pockets.

October 29, 2020 at 12:15 PM

"Many on this site have credited Europe for how effective they were in locking down and slowing down the virus so they could reopen safely. But now we are seeing a resurgence and once again closures are being implemented."

You see this argument a lot. "We were told Europe did it right, but now that they have a second wave it proves they didn't." As my good friend Russell Meyer can tell you, that's not how science works.

The fact of the matter is that Europe DID do it right, they quashed their first wave and were able to reopen. As predicted, they are now having a second winter wave which is causing them to shut down again, but they are starting from a MUCH better place, which means hopefully their winter lockdown = can be brought under control rapidly, and they can open again.

Meanwhile, here in idiot city, led by the idiot in chief, we NEVER LEFT THE FIRST WAVE. We're at 80,000 infections a day, rising with a bullet, and winter hasn't even really us yet! We will have to shut down far more, for far longer than Europe. Why? Because they did it right, are doing it right, and we 1000% unequivocally did it wrong (tbf, we didn't "do" much of anything), are continuing to do it wrong, and will be suffering the negative effects for long past Europe's reopening.

But I tell you what, boy, my personal freedom ain't gonna be curtailed by no wimpy mask. You think bald eagles wear a mask? Gonna get my whole family and head down to Hooters for some mask-free wings! Yeehaw, Murica First!!

October 29, 2020 at 12:26 PM

On Oct. 24, the CDC reported that family gatherings from different households can spread the virus. On Oct. 26, Dr. Fauci said "We know that this virus overwhelmingly predominantly is transmitted by the respiratory route by either droplets that are large enough to travel to someone's nose, eyes, mouth".

He also said "We also know that the virus can live on inanimate objects," explaining that according to the transmissibility and the epidemiology, "that is very likely a very, very minor, minor aspect" of transmissibility". "I think we should spend less time worrying about wiping down a grocery bag than we should about just washing our hands frequently," he said.

I've always heard that the main way to get the virus is that you are exposed for a lengthy amount of time, 15 minutes or more. So if you are with someone who sneezes, coughs, speaks or sings forcefully for an extended amount of time in a poorly ventilated area, you are more likely to get infected, a passing exposure is less likely to infect you.

A family is probably more likely to let their guard down in terms of social distancing, they want to hug, etc. People at theme parks, even if they were a little careless, probably would be mostly passing by and not have an extended exposure. The virus is dangerous, but I think we should weigh all the risks, be aware and figure out ways to minimize the risks and still be able to get back to our lives.

October 29, 2020 at 1:28 PM

I have a hard time sympathizing with Disney when you have Iger who has a base pay of 3 million, got a 2019 cash bonus of 21.8 million and in that year, was awarded another 19 mil in stock options.

(That withstanding, almost all executive management pay according to them was restructured or reduced during park closures)

Throw in Comcast who worked directly with DES to import their furloughed employees to ensure paycheck stability whilst Disney left theirs to fend for themselves and Disney becomes it's own "Disney Villain".

As for Chapek, you cannot in one breath say are "cast members are our entertainment" and then layoff 28,000.

It's not that they had to do it (They most likley did) It's how they did it... that continues to burn.

October 29, 2020 at 2:38 PM

Yea let’s hold a crybaby party for the executive and senior leadership team for having stock rights instead of cash ( oh and missing out on his Mickey Mouse 50th statue too - lmao) but screw the park operations and entertainment employees who can’t even afford food or housing. It laughable to say Disney needs All of the executive team because they are So productive - Those people are still there because they rule the nest and aren’t about to sacrifice themselves. . Instead they have no problem pushing thousands others in front of them to save their Luxury lifestyle. I personally wouldn’t waste my money going to Disney for the simple fact that after they eliminated all the shows and other entertainment that made the park magical and now must rely on stale rides and the hope you don’t notice the delayed opening of anything new.

October 29, 2020 at 2:42 PM

@thecolonel - The point was not to say whether Europe did it right or wrong, better or worse. People in Europe have still died, many are still getting sick, and many are losing their work. This is not a defense nor an attack on anyone. If you see I didn't exactly send praise to the United States handling. My opinion on this one is that I feel pointing blame does not create solution. The time will come when we can fully assess all the mistakes made by EVERYONE. I'm sure the thousands of Disney employees who have lost their job are not interested in someone telling them hey, it's all such and such a person's fault. I would think that they are more worried about their immediate future and their well being after facing the prospect of being unemployed.
Way to keep it respectful though. I love how you go to a stereotype on your last paragraph. It's funny but you almost sound like a certain "idiot" you tend to reference in many of your posts.

October 29, 2020 at 7:18 PM

So what has changed in Florida from mid-July to today where there has been a 2/3 reduction in positive cases while the rest of the US has shown a slight increase (after a temporary decrease) while the rest of the world has seen their 7-day average number of cases double in the same time frame?

Source: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries

October 30, 2020 at 7:48 AM

@TwoBits - Little has changed, and that's the problem. The virus has not abated, and WDW still cannot run most shows, and what live entertainment is occurring is being operated with significant limitations. Maintaining a highly skilled cast to stage multiple shows across multiple parks just doesn't make sense with no reasonable prospect that they will be returning to normal performances anytime soon. At some point, WDW was going to cut their losses, and stop paying to have talent sit around on their hands waiting for a miracle.

October 30, 2020 at 11:55 AM

@Russell Meyer: Keep in mind, a backstage is a very crowded and cramped space which makes distancing nearly impossible. That's why Broadway is closed until next summer, there's no way they can pull productions off with a smaller crew in a tight setting and thus, even less chance in a theme park.

October 30, 2020 at 12:45 PM

That's exactly my point MikeW. The performers in these shows can't physically do their job right now, so why should Disney keep them hanging in a lurch waiting for conditions to magically turn around? TwoBits would have you believe that a business should just keep paying these employees to sit at home and do nothing, and instead jettison "overpaid" executives to compensate for the losses, even if those executives are actually completing tasks that generate revenue (whether directly or indirectly).

October 30, 2020 at 1:48 PM

Who's to blame? One word: China.

October 30, 2020 at 2:21 PM

@Still a fan I would use a different word. It starts with a T and ends with a p. "It will magically go away by April," he said, and his foolish supporters believed him and didn't follow recommended mandates set by governors who had no national leadership. And in October (WELL PAST April), we are setting daily infection records.

If we had any competent national leadership at all on this, we wouldn't be in this situation. But we are where we are, and have to deal with it.

And yet still, EVERY night at work, I have to be the mask police because nobody else is enforcing our state's mandate (but WE get heavily fined for every guest who doesn't wear a face covering over their nose and mouth). I never signed up to be the mask police or to be a public health monitor, but it can cost me my livelihood if I do not do so. Myjob is SO much different than when I as hired.I hate it. But SO MANY PEOPLE are refusing to follow the guidelines, that I know this is exactly why we are where we are, still unable to fully reopen. Selfish people are screwing it up for the rest of us.

November 1, 2020 at 5:52 PM

@Kenny Vee: I can relate. My UPS job, for months, had customers and drivers masked but the union gave workers a choice whether or not because they thought making them do it against their will was violating worker rights. Now, as Illinois tightens, they are making everyone wear masks (I had been doing so for a while) as amazing how few folks go with it.

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