FILE - In this Saturday, July 11, 2020, file photo, guests wear masks as required to attend the official reopening day of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Two weeks after reopening, workers at Disney World are praising the company for the safety protocols that have been implemented to protect against the new coronavirus. But questions remain about whether it will matter to paying guests of Disney World and its crosstown rivals, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP, File)

Workers praise Disney virus safety, but will visitors come?

Less than half of Disney World’s 43,000 unionized workers have been recalled to their old jobs

Every week, it seems, Kaila Barker, her husband and their five children change their minds about whether to travel from their home in Connecticut to Florida’s Walt Disney World as planned in September.

On the one hand, the lack of crowds means more opportunities to go on rides without long waits. On the other hand, Connecticut and Florida have implemented pandemic-related quarantines for each other’s residents and visitors, and the Barkers worry whether the Disney “magic” will get lost with mandatory mask-wearing for visitors and workers, temperature checks and no parades, fireworks shows or up-close “meet-and-greets” with costumed characters.

“We keep going back and forth. It’s such a hard decision to make,” Barker said last Tuesday.

Two weeks after Disney World started opening its theme parks for the first time since closing in March because of COVID-19, the Barkers’ quandary affects not only Disney World’s future but that of central Florida’s tourism-reliant economy.

More than 75 million visitors came to Orlando in 2018, mostly due to its reputation as a theme park mecca, which also includes Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando. But the coronavirus has upended Orlando’s status as the most visited place in the U.S.

In the week that Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom started welcoming back visitors, occupancy of hotel rooms in the Orlando area was down more than 60% from the previous year, a much deeper drop than the state as a whole, which declined more than 41%, according to STR, which tracks hotel data.

Less than half of Disney World’s 43,000 unionized workers have been recalled to their old jobs, contributing to two Orlando-area counties having the state’s highest unemployment rates last month — Osceola at 22.9% and Orange at 17.2%. Disney World has an overall workforce of 77,000 employees, the nation’s largest single-site labour force.

Many of those still-furloughed workers are about to lose federal benefits at the end of the month.

“This is an extremely difficult moment,” said Paul Cox, president of the local union that represents stagehands and show technicians at Disney World. “There are still a majority of workers who are staying at home and they’re about to lose support. Things are going to get bad.”

Union officials estimate the Disney parks are no more than a third full, but that may be more by design to maintain social distancing. Disney World doesn’t release attendance figures, but in pre-pandemic times its four parks and two water parks could host around 150,000 visitors a day.

Florida has had a surging coronavirus caseload recently, and other Disney parks around the globe have run into coronavirus-related roadblocks. Hong Kong Disneyland Park was forced to close earlier this month following the city’s decision to ban public gatherings of more than four people, and Disney’s California parks delayed reopening while they awaited state guidelines.

Cowen Inc. estimated recently that Disney’s parks and resorts won’t return to pre-pandemic profitability until fiscal year 2025, and there is a “meaningful” probability that Disney World could close again because of the pandemic.

Leaders of the Disney World workers’ unions describe the virus-related safety measures Disney has taken as “exemplary.”

ALSO READ: B.C. CDC issues COVID-19 exposure warning for four flights at Vancouver airport

After workers complained about patrons walking around with their masks pulled down while eating food like turkey legs, Disney World updated its mandatory mask policy, requiring visitors to eat in one place while maintaining social distancing.

In response to other worker concerns, Disney has distributed personal hand sanitizer containers for workers to wear on their belts, added additional break rooms to limit the number of workers in them and reduced the number of riders on buses that shuttle workers from parking lots to the parks. Performers dressed as Disney princesses being driven in a horse-powered carriage through the parks now sit individually in rows separated by clear-plastic window partitions.

“Singing their praises seems so strange,” said Julee Jerkovich, an official with a United Food & Commercial Workers union, which represents Disney merchandise and banquet workers. “As far as this grand experiment, I would have to say Disney has done a really good job.”

But not all unions are happy. The union that represents actors and singers has filed a grievance with Disney World, saying their 750 members were locked out of returning to work after they complained about Disney ignoring their demands for getting coronavirus tests since they can’t wear masks while performing. Some performers, though, are eager to return to work and are pushing the union to reach an agreement with the company, as they worry about Disney replacing their shows with temporary ones featuring non-actors.

There have been isolated cases of workers and visitors connected to the theme parks getting sick with COVID-19, “but we haven’t seen any large number of positive cases that come from any of the parks,” Dr. Raul Pino, health officer for Florida’s Department of Health, said last Monday.

Disney’s policy of granting sick workers with paid time off so they can quarantine has made a difference, said Eric Clinton, president of Unite Here! Local 362, which represents Disney World park greeters, attractions workers and custodians.

But Clinton wonders if the current operating model can last until the pandemic is over, given that just over 20,000 of the 43,000 workers represented by unions have returned to work, only half of Disney World’s 30 onsite hotels currently are back open and several in-park restaurants still are closed.

“Disney is a strong brand. They have a great product, but does the novelty wear off? Do people want to go to a theme park now? Is it more appealing with less crowds?” Clinton said. “I’m hopeful but nervous.”

—-

Mike Schneider, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusDisneyUSA

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

NDP headquarters on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)
ELECTION 2020: Live blog from B.C. party headquarters

BC NDP projected to win majority government – but celebrations will look different this election

Jennifer Rice BC NDP North Coast Incumbent was re-elected for a third according to the preliminary results on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Jennifer Rice is North Coast MLA for third term

Preliminary election results show NDP Majority government

B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau outlines her party's climate action platform at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre earlier this month. (News Bulletin file photo)
Green leader Furstenau declared victor in her home riding on Vancouver Island

Cowichan Valley voters elect freshly minted party leader for her second term

John Horgan has been re-elected the MLA for Langford-Juan de Fuca. (File-Black Press)
Horgan trounces challengers to be re-elected in his Vancouver Island riding

MLA has represented constituency of Langford-Juan de Fuca and its predecessors since 2005

Subsea fibre optics running from Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii and and then south to Vancouver will improve high-speed internet connection options for Coastal Communities, CityWest said on Oct. 13.
Subsea fibre optics running from north of Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii and and then south to Vancouver will improve high-speed internet connection options for Coastal communities, CityWest said on Oct. 13. (Black Press Media)
CityWest to refresh subsea fibre optics project

Fibre optics project to run cable from north of Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii then south to Vancouver

NDP Leader John Horgan celebrates his election win in the British Columbia provincial election in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan celebrates projected majority NDP government, but no deadline for $1,000 deposit

Premier-elect says majority government will allow him to tackle issues across all of B.C.

FILE – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Premier John Horgan during a press conference at the BC Transit corporate office following an announcement about new investments to improve transit for citizens in the province while in Victoria on Thursday, July 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Trudeau congratulates Horgan on NDP’s election victory in British Columbia

Final count won’t be available for three weeks due to the record number of 525,000 ballots cast by mail

Comedic actor Seth Rogen, right, and business partner Evan Goldberg pose in this undated handout photo. When actor Seth Rogen was growing up and smoking cannabis in Vancouver, he recalls there was a constant cloud of shame around the substance that still lingers. Rogen is determined to change that. (Maarten de Boer ohoto)
Seth Rogen talks about fighting cannabis stigma, why pot should be as accepted as beer

‘I smoke weed all day and every day and have for 20 years’

Provincial Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau speaks at Provincial Green Party headquarters at the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe in Victoria. (Arnold Lim / Black Press)
VIDEO: Furstenau leads BC Greens to win first riding outside of Vancouver Island

Sonia Furstenau became leader of BC Greens one week before snap election was called

NDP Leader John Horgan elbow bumps NDP candidate Coquitlam-Burke Mountain candidate Fin Donnelly following a seniors round table in Coquitlam, B.C., Tuesday, October 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan, NDP head for majority in B.C. election results

Record number of mail-in ballots may shift results

The Canadian border is pictured at the Peace Arch Canada/USA border crossing in Surrey, B.C. Friday, March 20, 2020. More than 4.6 million people have arrived in Canada since the border closed last March and fewer than one-quarter of them were ordered to quarantine while the rest were deemed “essential” and exempted from quarantining. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Majority of international travellers since March deemed ‘essential’, avoid quarantine

As of Oct. 20, 3.5 million travellers had been deemed essential, and another 1.1 million were considered non-essential

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Friday October 23, 2020 in Ottawa. Canada’s top physician says she fears the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths may increase in the coming weeks as the second wave continues to drive the death toll toward 10,000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns severe illness likely to rise, trailing spike in COVID-19 cases

Average daily deaths from virus reached 23 over the past seven days, up from six deaths six weeks ago

Most Read