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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