Why Disney Needs More Cooks in Its Kitchens

February 10, 2022, 2:10 PM · 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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Replies (15)

February 10, 2022 at 4:08 PM

I was hired into Disneyland foods in late 2010 as a custodial busser (I think I've even done a bit of writing on this website a very long time ago about that subject). It was a grind but a massive step up from much of my hourly employment up to that point. That did not stop me from putting in a transfer request as soon as my probation period ended (four months at that time) to move into attractions -- something that cost me around half a dollar an hour.

I never regretted it because the working conditions, support from management and promotional opportunities were vastly superior in my time in attractions (a little more than a year before I left the company). Who knows -- maybe things have dramatically changed since then and working in food and bev at Disneyland is a much more rewarding experience, financially and personally, than it was a decade ago. I tend to doubt it. Paying the Cast Members more would help (obviously -- I live in Orange County, make $55,000 a year and scrape by; I recognize my privileged position next to the people I used to work alongside). Disney is not going to pay their Cast Members a living wage and they likely don't have to. Treating them with the same respect and giving them the same opportunities they give other Cast Members within their own company would be a hell of a place to start.

February 10, 2022 at 4:38 PM

Well, I guess at least they haven't outsourced everything to Aramark yet, like Legoland.

February 10, 2022 at 6:03 PM

I had my first visit to HPOE a couple of weeks ago. It had been over two years since visiting and it felt so good to be back, until I got hungry. Our first meal was lunch on a Saturday at Plaza Inn. It was late for lunch, around 2:30 and there were no problems at all. We didn't wait long and the food was just as delicious as ever. They really have magically delicious fried chicken.
The real issue came with a late dinner that night at Jolly Holiday bakery and then breakfast the next day at Pym Test Kitchen at DCA. We hadn't made plans for these meals, we just got hungry - BIG MISTAKE. You simply do not want to do that currently at DLR. I hate to vent about bad service because I understand the challenges the hospitality industry is having finding staffing – especially kitchen and housekeeping team members. Standing in line at both of those restaurants confirmed my decision that frequent visits to DLR are just not in my future at this time.
I’m glad to hear one reason they are limiting admission to the parks the inability of the F&B department to feed the crowds. There were not keeping up with the needs of the guests on the days we were there so I can’t imagine how it would have been with a larger in-park.
One of my favorite places to eat at WDW’s MK was the Columbia House restaurant between Fantasyland and Liberty Square. It was always busy but it was a remarkable people feeding machine of a place. Seems like there were at least eight registers open operating sixteen lines (there may have been fewer, but it seemed at least that big in my imagination). Behind the counter you’d see a huge crew gathering and compiling incoming orders and passing trays full of food to waiting guests. At Pym Test Kitchen all but one register stand had been removed and a makeshift stanchion and ropes queue had been laid out for the slowly moving line of screw-ups like me who had failed to make mobile orders inched towards breakfast. It’s an industry wide issue and one I hope Mickey figures out real soon.

February 10, 2022 at 6:25 PM

@robert don't put that bad energy into the universe

February 10, 2022 at 9:53 PM

@Rob McCullough - What the heck is HPOE? (Thanks.)

February 10, 2022 at 11:42 PM

@Beacher HPOE is an acronym for Happiest Place On Earth - Disneyland.

February 11, 2022 at 10:34 AM

@Beacher - Theme Park Insider's "Big List o' Acronyms" can be found here.


February 11, 2022 at 11:57 AM

What absolute hogwash. Each restaurant now has 2-5 employees stationed outside literally not doing anything except (i) directing people towards remote ordering (for sometime in the future, mind you, or (ii) keeping people from entering the establishment unless and until the app tells them their food is ready. There are probably another couple of employees directed at managing the big crowds of people clogging up the walkways while they wait for their food.

Point being: Chapek has plenty of available employees. But he's rather use them to steer people toward his obnoxious cost-saving measures than for actual customer service.

Chapek is downright Trumpian in the way he dissembles.

February 11, 2022 at 12:07 PM

But those cast members are not cooks. Without more cooks, Disney has to assign its other Foods CMs to crowd control so they can manage the overflow of guests waiting on the output of understaffed kitchens.

February 11, 2022 at 2:13 PM

@Rob McCullough - Thanks. (I thought I knew most Disney acronyms. That's a new one for me.)

@TH Creative - Thanks for the link, however "HPOE" is not on Theme Park Insider's "Big List o' Acronyms".

February 11, 2022 at 7:15 PM

Yeah, but Robert, it's not like the folks in Disney's kitchens need foodservice training, they're making the same pre-prepared half-dozen foods over and over. I was a "cook" at McDonalds when I was 15-- Disney can surely hire all the cooks they need if they're willing to pay them an attractive wage.

Let me put it to you this way: I don't see any restaurants, anywhere in California, refusing to seat people because they don't have folks to make the food. How is the Denny's across the street from Disney serving a full house but somehow Disney can't? Coming from the Company that now gooses its wait times to drive Genie+ traffic, I call shenanigans.

February 12, 2022 at 3:48 PM


Regardless of how “pre-prepared” you think the food is, you still need food training(It can be very dangerous working at a kitchen if you’re not properly trained). And heck, it’s not just cooks they’re short on, you need prep cooks to prepare all the food in the parks. If you don’t have enough prep cooks, you can’t have many restaurants open/food items will be discontinued for the day or more.

February 13, 2022 at 12:11 AM

Yeah, I don't know where thecolonel is coming from either. There's a reason why Disney offers culinary programs in line with their internships: it takes a lot of time to get properly trained in the art and demands of foodmaking, especially in a theme park where you can expect a busy kitchen every day.

Have you ever been to a place like Tiffins, California Grill, or Le Cellier? The menus there are far more complicated and less pre-prepared than what you find at Denny's.

February 14, 2022 at 12:03 PM

I don't understand thecolonel's criticisms either. I will say that I'm not a fan of the changes occurring across the food service industry, but there's very little that customers are going to be able to do to change it (reliance on tech, managing kitchen output, and advance reservation/ordering systems). The bottom line is that output has to be carefully managed and controlled so the customer experience doesn't decline any further. At least we can point to the fact that Disney (and some other theme park companies - Merlin excluded) are still trying to be creative and innovative with their food offerings.

If Disney wanted to "grease the skids", they could have easily trimmed menus and reverted to pizza and chicken strips, which could be prepared and assembled by less skilled and trained staff. However, for the most part, they've resisted the urge of streamlining and homogenizing their menus, which theme park fans should be happy to see.

February 15, 2022 at 11:10 PM

I used to work at Disneyland, now work in a completely different industry, and it is HARD to find employees. It's just VERY hard to find employees right now and it's hurting a LOT of us. So many openings, so few people wanting to fill them.

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