What is the biggest problem facing Walt Disney World and Disneyland right now? It might be the number of cooks in the kitchen.
In yesterday's quarterly earnings report, Disney CEO Bob Chapek confirmed that Disney is "self-regulating" its theme park capacity. Disney is using its new reservation system to limit the number of people admitted to the Disney World and Disneyland theme parks below the number who visited on comparable days before the pandemic.
Why? Chapek pointed to two reasons: live entertainment and cooks. Without enough of either, Disney does not have the capacity to welcome extra people into its theme parks. Here is what Chapek said about that. It's a bit of a word salad, but interesting stuff lurks there.
"In terms of sort of the self-management capacity, one of the last things to come back for us in a post-Covid world - well, we hope is a post-Covid world - is actually live entertainment. Because much of the live entertainment is close proximity, we are self-regulating that - we are self-managing that - because we don't want our guests to feel an excessive level of density. And the place that you get it is parades and firework shows, and things like that. So I suspect that, you know, over time, we'll start to regain some of the capacity drop off that we're kind of self-imposing on ourselves," Chapek said. (Disney has announced a March 9 return for the Festival of Fantasy parade at the Magic Kingdom. Fantasmic! and World of Color also will return later this year.)
"The other thing I should say is that, to a certain extent, because people spend such a long time in our parks and resorts, the food and beverage component is actually a pretty big one of those. We really haven't had too big of an issue in terms of retaining and attracting people to work into our parks at all. Matter of fact, we had 85% of our cast members pretty much say yes, immediately, when we asked them back.
"But at the same time, the two areas that have been difficult, is hospitality - and right now we've got 90% of our hotels at Walt Disney World open and we've got all of our hotels at Disneyland open - but also, sort of, cooks. Think kind of short order cooks. And so the capacity constraints - self-imposed capacity constraints - are really a function of our food and beverage, sort of - mitigation, if you will. But the second one is live entertainment, and we're working towards restoring both of those, so that we can get up to something that would be more similar to what we've seen in the past in terms of the number of people we put into our parks."
If Disney is missing live entertainment, that's no huge problem because the parks continue to offer plenty of other attractions to fill your day. But if Disney can't serve enough food to feed its guests, well, everyone has a big problem there.
You can see the effect in long queues for quick service food locations across Walt Disney World and Disneyland. People using mobile order find prime meal times booked early in the day and significant waits to pick up their food when they able to order. And people trying to order the old fashioned ways are finding long queues for what registers are left.
Those queues are not a function of front-end limitations. Those front-end limitations - reduced availability of mobile order and in-person registers - are there to protect kitchens from falling further behind on moving orders. As Chapek suggested, Disney needs more cooks in order to increase its food capacity - and, following from that, its overall park capacity.
Disney is not alone in this need, of course. Restaurants across the country are struggling to find and retain workers as the pandemic continues to expose the dreadful ongoing economic conditions for so many working people in the United States. Not all of this is the fault of bad managers. And pretty much none of this is the fault of "lazy" workers. Housing, health care, child care, and education costs have been battering working people in America for a generation, and many workers are using this moment of disruption to go full Howard Beale and scream that they won't take it anymore.
The solution? For the country, that answer lies beyond the scope of this website. But for Disney, I am reminded of a story about two people who encounter a hungry bear in the woods. One freezes in a panic, while the other person calmly starts to switch their heavy boots for running shoes. "What are you doing?" the first person asks. "Are you trying to outrun the bear?"
"I don't need to outrun the bear," the second person responds. "I just need to outrun you."
To expand its park capacity, Disney needs to pay more and treat its cast members better than other businesses in the community. Recent union agreements, while a welcomed step forward, might not be enough for Disney to do that, even if the company and the union have deals in place.
It's almost unheard of for a company to ask a union to come back to the bargaining table so it can increase pay, benefits, and protections, but this might be a moment that calls for previously unheard tactics.
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