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Disney Will Never Be the Same: A Litany of Layoff Devastation

This week, there was an employment cataclysm at Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

In one day, the company axed nearly every worker with a speaking role in its U.S. parks.

As part of the 28,000 layoffs announced a few weeks ago, Disney's live entertainment all but came to an end.

Although Walt Disney World reopened in July, visitors simply aren't coming and spending. The company can no longer afford to pay performers at many of its most popular shows and attractions, some of which have remained shuttered even though the rest of the parks struggle along.

The list of losses is shocking, and it guts the atmosphere of the Disney theme park experience. Cast members for the following mainstays have been dismissed: 

• Magic Kingdom: "streetmosphere" characters of Main Street, U.S.A. (pictured below); Monsters, Inc. Laugh FloorMickey's Royal Friendship Faire; Move It! Shake It! MousekDance It! Street Party 
• Epcot: Turtle Talk with Crush, Christmas storytellers
• Disney's Hollywood Studios: characters of Hollywood, Indiana Jones Epic Stunt SpectacularBeauty and the Beast—Live on Stage, Jedi Training Academy, Disney Junior performers, The Voyage of the Little Mermaid, Green Army Men in Toy Story Land, characters of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge

• Disney's Animal Kingdom: Festival of the Lion KingFinding Nemo: The Musical, Pandora utility suit performers
• Disneyland and Disney California AdventureMickey and the Magical Map, Frozen Live at the Hyperion
• Resorts: The Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, The Grand Floridian Society Orchestra

Even parades and simple character meet-and-greets have been eliminated. 

("Streetmosphere" performers, Magic Kingdom, 2019)

Beyond the obvious toll in human well-being, the slashed job roster is devastating for visiting small children, since most of the affected shows were geared toward kids too young for the thrill rides. 

Some of the workers, particularly the ones represented by the Service Trades Council Union, may be entitled to get their jobs and salaries back before October 2022. But there's no guarantee those roles will return as the company claws its way back, and many of the workers without that job protection will be gone for good.

The Actors' Equity Association, a union that represents many of the fired workers, said that before the pandemic, about 780 of its members had jobs performing at Disney parks. 

Only 60 are left. 

The depth of institutional memory that's being swept out the door is staggering. The Hoop-De-Doo Musical Revue, for example, has been running since 1974. A show performer profiled by the San Francisco Chronicle was fired by Disneyland a year shy of her 40th anniversary with the company. 

Many of the people who define Disney have been fired, and most of them will never return. Even if some of these entertainment institutions are restored, it will require mountains of work and time to hire and train all-new casts. 

The Disney you knew is gone.

And it didn't have to be this way.

America allowed Covid-19 to get out of control and scare away business. Florida's Walt Disney World has been open since July, but the continued, uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus throughout the nation has utterly destroyed any hope that Disney might be able to resume a healthy financial position.

The day after Mitch McConnell adjourned the Senate without taking up a vote on Covid-19 assistance, Disney reluctantly parted ways with thousands of its most important employees—the ones who make up the face of the company. 

Actors' Equity put it beautifully—and the union was not shy about placing the blame where it belongs: "These reductions are another tragic reminder that until the virus is brought under control with a national strategy for masks, testing, and contact tracing, everyone who works in the arts needs help like extended pandemic unemployment insurance and federal COBRA health insurance subsidies."

Two weeks ago, Sen. Elizabeth Warren blasted Disney executives for restoring their pay to pre-pandemic levels even as they ordered the layoffs of 28,000 people. Warren excoriated Disney management for recently spending $47.9 billion in stock repurchases and $5.4 billion in dividend payments, which she says weakened the company's ability to protect workers. She also scorched Disney for paying more than $338 million in total compensation to 20 top executives in the past three years.

I've been covering Disney parks for two decades and going to them for four decades, and I write Frommer's annual guidebook to Walt Disney World, so I've seen a lot of changes. No matter how culture changes, though, the parks have been reliable, durable, and reassuring. I have often said, half-jokingly, that Walt Disney World is so essential to the American character that if the company ever went out of business, the National Park Service would have to take it over.

I don't say that anymore. 

The company is in real trouble, and for the first time, Disney fans are having feverish nightmares in which the Anaheim and Orlando parks, betrayed by American leadership, can no longer survive and are sold for real estate development.

I know that notion seems outlandish, but a year ago, so did everything else in our current reality.

(The Mayor of Frontierland, Disneyland, 2019)