It’s a common saying at Walt Disney World, one you’ll hear upon arriving at a seaside boardwalk hotel, telling a Grand Floridian Cafe server where you’re from, or scanning a MagicBand to board Disney’s Magical Express airport bus. It reinforces everything about Disney’s trademark wonder and nostalgia, not to mention the distinctly American sentimentality of saving hard-earned money and spending it on the same vacation you may have experienced as a child.
After four months of being stuck in my own home, it took a ride on Space Mountain’s shuttle to bring me back to pre-pandemic times, whipping through turns and drops I’d known so well yet somewhat forgotten during the Magic Kingdom’s 117-day closure. Here I was, double-masked, with Bath & Body Works Sweet Pea-scented antibacterial gel at the ready, thrill-bound for the first time in what felt like forever.
Disney World isn’t just a personal pastime; it’s my office. As a theme park journalist, I’ve been everywhere in the name of reporting — international parks, cruise ships, inside Florida’s castle — but this was my first trip to Tomorrowland in the midst of a global health crisis.
I was finally home, I thought. But should I be?
On the day Disney’s Magic Kingdom theme park reopened, Florida broke records for having the highest number of new Covid-19 cases of any day, in any state, since the pandemic began. The turn-of-the-century soundtrack still played, the teacups kept spinning, the princesses waved. The show, albeit amended, went on.
A respiratory disease continuing its global conquest is deeply discordant with a 40-square-mile vacation destination trademarked as The Most Magical Place on Earth. And yet, with a mix of safety regulations, specified closures, and operational changes, Disney has made surprising strides toward finding harmony between the two realities.
On its peroxide-treated surface, a visit to Walt Disney World’s theme parks still hits the high notes. You can buy a Moana doll, but you may have to join a virtual waiting list prior to entering the store. Want a Mickey-shaped ice cream bar? Be sure to step aside before removing your mask to enjoy it. You can see but not touch Minnie Mouse, as character meet-and-greets have been scrapped for distanced greetings and limited parades. Not all experiences and hotels are open, and not everyone has returned to work. Everything’s the same and yet nothing is, with even Disney’s emblematic Cinderella Castle undergoing a rose gold-hued transformation during quarantine.
Still, the sheer irony of visiting the World Showcase at Epcot, a theme park within America’s hot zone, to travel to facsimile countries like France and Japan where the reality is much less bleak than here isn’t lost on me. Enacting a vast upheaval of tried-and-true operations, many of which lean on customer service and human contact, Disney meticulously reimagined its parks and already considerable cleaning procedures for a family-friendly getaway that may not be entirely safe, but at least appears that way.
The choice to open Walt Disney World this month goes far beyond what many, including travel magazines, Disney’s own fans, and late-night monologists have critiqued as irresponsible, bundling the Florida government’s laissez-faire approach to the Mouse, subpar statewide unemployment benefits, and union negotiations into a Matryoshka doll of complications.
A leisure resort that’s just as much its own city, Disney took the time and opportunity afforded by Florida’s shutdown to create a microcosm for society during one of its most challenging eras. While debates and stress rage outside, in here, the refusal to wear a mask or follow the rules will lead not only to community ire but to one’s potential ejection.
The Walt Disney Company is by no means impervious to a pandemic, taking a $1 billion hit in its theme park division as of early May. The attractions industry news site Blooloop estimates Walt Disney World and Disneyland theme parks lost a combined $37 million each day they sat closed; the latter has not yet reopened. “We’re doing everything we can to mitigate the impact of the cash burn,” CEO Bob Chapek told analysts nearly three months ago. (Its fiscal third-quarter results will be released next week.)
With Disney’s Broadway shows, cruise ships, and film releases in limbo, there was Disney World, one of six global theme park resorts temporarily shuttered due to the pandemic. Florida’s coronavirus response kept the virus spread under control through late May, presenting the possibility for business to return along with some of its 100,000 furloughed workers.
As America’s largest single-site employer, what other choice could Walt Disney World have made at the time?
On July 13, the morning Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios hosted an exclusive reopening preview for cast members — a.k.a. employees, one of many theater-adjacent terms used by Walt — Hong Kong Disneyland announced it would again close following 52 new cases in the city.
One park was being shuttered by government mandate while another, home to 242 times more cases, prepped for thousands of incoming guests. How? Because the Florida government never shut down the resort in the first place. Disney closed itself down and Disney decided to open itself back up. Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through plans in favor of reopening the state’s economy, one that relies on tourism to the tune of $90 billion annually.
Hong Kong Disneyland may be partially government-owned, but Disney’s domestic resorts, wholly owned by The Walt Disney Company, are still subject to local legislation. Disneyland Resort’s theme parks and two of its hotels delayed their July reopening pending California government approval, and no update has yet been provided.
As Vox previously reported, Florida’s approach to reopening was fast and fierce. Add a public “fueled by politics and complacency” who went out en masse without masks to packed restaurants, gyms, and bars, and you’ve got a perfect storm, one that resulted in a surge of cases from which the state has not yet recovered. As cases increased in late June, Gov. DeSantis doubled down, issuing a statement that “we are monitoring all aspects related to Covid-19 in Florida and do not have plans to roll back any approved reopening business plans at this time.”
“I’ve made it very clear in the past that I don’t think any theme park should have opened at this moment whatsoever,” said Florida House Rep. Anna Eskamani, who serves the 47th District in Orange County, where Disney and Universal’s theme parks are located. “We have some of the worst cases in Central Florida and in the state. Theme parks, to Disney’s credit, are trying really hard to create a safe environment and have made it very clear of the risk. I think they’re definitely taking it seriously, I just wish that we had leadership at the state level and county level that would balance these decisions with public health.”
If it sounds as though Disney World is self-governed, that’s perhaps due to an arrangement dating back to the 1960s. Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District, which stretches across Florida’s Orange and Osceola counties, operates its own fire departments, emergency medical services, and utilities, while two mini-communities of residents allow Disney World to be just that — a set of private cities. (The company, said to own around 30,000 acres of land, continues to buy more.)
Florida’s Covid-19 statistics and dwindling hospital bed availability at the time left many questioning why Walt Disney World chose to reopen its parks at the peak of a pandemic. The resort has been test-running safety procedures since it began a phased reopening on May 20; similar safety guidelines were in place at Shanghai Disneyland when it reopened mid-May.
Walt Disney World is also the last resort to open in Florida, with its largest regional competitor, Universal Orlando Resort, opening more than a month prior. Sea World, Legoland, and Busch Gardens’ Florida locations all opened in early and mid-June.
Disney is undoubtedly a leader in the field — when it closed, other parks followed suit; even a recent change in mask guidelines was echoed by Universal the next day — but much has changed over the past few weeks. When the resort’s reopening plans were presented at a virtual Orange County Economic Task Force meeting on May 27, Florida had 464 new cases; by Magic Kingdom’s opening day, that number had tripled.
The optics of pushing ahead were bleak. Headlines blared of the company’s shortsightedness, MSNBC’s Katy Tur lambasted Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings on TV, and a now-deleted marketing video of cheerful employees was ridiculed and recut as a horror movie trailer. (The name of that clip? “Welcome Home.”)
Newly crowned Disney Parks chair Josh D’Amaro emphasized to CNN that “we are watching the external environment really carefully. But what we’ve done here is we’ve built an operations protocol. We’ve phased this opening. We put ourselves in complete control,” he said, sharing his confidence in the decision to open Disney World responsibly. “We are in a new normal right now, so what’s happening outside of the gates of Walt Disney World is our new world,” he later added.
When reached for comment, Disney PR told Vox it would not be granting interviews, instead referring reporters to its public-facing Disney Parks Blog. This sentiment has seemingly been echoed across media outlets covering the resort’s reopening, for which access had been unusually restricted; even the New York Times, which was granted an interview, had its photo credentials rescinded.
Inside the parks, it doesn’t take long to adjust to that new normal D’Amaro mentioned. Updated procedures are clear and easy to follow, with striped lines and numbered decals dictating where to stand and mealtimes streamlined by QR code menus and expansive mobile ordering. The upside of visiting a popular theme park during a pandemic is that it no longer really operates like a popular theme park. Disney’s exhausting booking methods, which rationalize 4 am wake-up calls to reserve spots on an Avatar-themed simulator and brunch reservations six months in advance, have been temporarily suspended, allowing guests to embrace spontaneity for the first time in years.
With Disney capping attendance, requiring entry reservations, and removing the “skip the line” Fastpass+ system, wait times have plummeted compared to what they typically are at this time of year. Len Testa, president of Touring Plans, a website that algorithmically tracks crowds and wait times, deems them “comparable to what you’d expect if you visited the parks the day after a hurricane hit, and another hurricane was due in a couple of days,” with rides, even the park’s most popular, occasionally offering the ability to “re-ride” over and over.
Disney World is indeed a unique situation, one that’s at minimum considered “higher risk” by CDC recommendations while simultaneously providing a refuge of stringently enforced guidelines within Florida. Safety was always a priority for the company, but never has it been as visible as plexiglass dividers on DINOSAUR’s Time Rover vehicles or Mickey Mouse exclusively appearing on a pontoon boat, in a glitzed-up 1920s touring car, or perched atop a socially distanced cartoonish Chevy convertible.
But is it enough? Some new measures, such as adding portable hand-washing stations, are scientifically proven to be effective; others, like temperature checks, may provide an inflated sense of security. (Not considered to be major spreaders, children 2 and under are not required to wear masks or have their temperatures checked.)
Ride vehicles are cleaned every two hours with a peroxide-based disinfectant, and antibacterial gel dispensers, which number in the thousands, are provided upon entry and exit of each attraction. It all sounds peachy until you run it past Lydia Bourouiba, associate professor and director of MIT’s Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission Laboratory, who ... doesn’t love it.
“I am surprised to hear, if that is the case, that they didn’t have a protocol for decontamination after each batch of riders,” Bourouiba explained. “Given they are running the facility at low capacity, it would appear reasonable and easily doable to implement such measures.”
She adds that while some people use antibacterial gel thoroughly, others can leave areas of their hands exposed, posing a risk when gripping a shared surface. “For high-touch areas that are not decontaminated, one can think of it as effectively touching everybody else’s hands,” she said. This point of potential failure, as Bourouiba calls it, presents a deeper challenge on attractions with joysticks, pull-strings, or even Disney’s Star Wars-themed Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run attraction, whose replica cockpit prides itself on abundant buttons and switches that actually click when you touch them. (Though Universal Orlando Resort cleans at a lesser frequency, Bourouiba commends the park for wiping down vehicles whenever a mask is removed on-ride.)
Prolonged exposure to respiratory droplets between people in close quarters remains the biggest threat when it comes to coronavirus transmission, and if there ever was a time to invest in plexiglass, spring 2020 was it. Now as omnipresent as Disney’s crew of anthropomorphic characters, barriers of the stuff divide tight queues for rides, keep guests from employees at checkout terminals, and, on some attractions, separate passengers when they have no choice but to be in close quarters. Each ride’s 6-foot distancing protocols were also met differently, with boat rides leaving middle rows empty, coasters skipping seats, and others, like Soarin’ Around the World, attaching dividers by what appears to be a child’s booster seat.
Eating indoors is questionable anywhere, and though Disney restaurants benefit from ample space beyond that of traditional restaurants, “it’s really not just about the distance when you’re inside and eating. It’s also about the air venting, handling, and details of the transient flow patterns that matter,” Bourouiba said, exposing the risk in mask-free environments like Disney’s indoor, air-conditioned Relaxation Stations, which provide a tempting hideout from Florida’s summer heat. “Six feet apart in an indoor space is not by itself a safety magical bullet.”
When I asked Jade Pagkas-Bather, infectious diseases attending physician and clinical epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine, how safe it is to visit Disney World with these precautions in place, she laughed. “You probably could not pay me money to go to a theme park. I might consider it if someone says they’d wipe out my student loan debt from medical school, but that is not a place I would recommend going to.”
Her top concern is other people, particularly their willingness to comply with safety protocols. “All these things that many of us in the medical public health sphere are recommending are not things that are natural for a lot of Americans or people in large public spaces,” she said.
With guests traveling cross-country, Pagkas-Bather added, most will arrive with different levels of mask compliance from back home. “Are people going to be so excited to be there that they’ll be compliant? Or are you going to see what we know exists as ugly human behavior that sometimes happens when people don’t want to be told what to do, particularly at an expensive theme park that maybe they spent a lot of money traveling to?”
In anticipation of this issue, Disney has positioned yellow-shirted members of the “Incredi-Crew” — named for the Pixar animated films — to hold up smile signs and remind guests to properly don masks at park entrances each morning. Compliance during my time in the parks was surprisingly high, as much removal didn’t appear to be malicious but simply a gasp for air in Florida’s humid heat, though willingness to mask up seemed to wane toward day’s end. (Rule adherence at Disney Springs appears to have more uneven results.)
A week after opening, Disney clarified its mask policy even further, explicitly restricting neck gaiters and bandanas and providing limitations on eating while walking, assigning additional staff to Epcot’s food festival to enforce the update. Another update on July 26 confirmed facial coverings cannot contain valves, mesh, or holes of any kind, officially acknowledging vented mask inefficacy and condemning the facial covering tomfoolery happening nationwide due to the politicization of health and public safety.
Compliance is one piece of the puzzle. Operations is another, and for a resort of its size with completely reinvented guidelines, Disney’s updated procedures have appeared to be working well. Still, situations that arise on the fly are the real test, and resiliency to events unaccounted for during planning hasn’t always been optimal. I witnessed this firsthand as I was directed down a cramped walkway with a dense line of guests on Magic Kingdom’s opening day. Having nervously flown to Florida with the belief that I could remove myself from any dangerous situation, it shook me enough to leave the park without entering, stunned as nearby employees seemed oblivious to the issue. Socially distanced line markers magically appeared in that same spot the following day.
Clustering in a busy Epcot building, crowding as mobile-ordered meals are prepared, indoor queues presenting an uncomfortable environment during a ride’s temporary closure — they’re infrequent kinks in a functioning system that, even if rectified going forward, increased the likelihood of a pathogen’s transmission on the day.
“Is Disney willing to crack down and be kind of a bad guy even though it’s this sort of magical land?” asked Pagkas-Bather. “It’s really hard to become an enforcer of things when you are known for childhood happiness and dreams and this sort of magic and wonder. All of those things kind of encourage exploration without restriction — of your imagination but also your bodily movements. Is that going to dramatically change the dynamics of Disney World?”
For some, just being there may be good enough: Not a single park guest I spoke with during my nine-day trip felt endangered inside Disney’s parks, with reporters, friends, and strangers all expressing they felt safer here than in their respective hometowns. Bethany Jones, 39, who took her first solo trip for the opening, bought a ticket three days prior and drove down from Atlanta. “I was going to be simply happy with the sights and the sounds and smell of Main Street and the toned-down versions of my favorite attractions,” she said, acknowledging Disney as an escape. “Once I was inside, it almost felt like a dream.”
The destination’s insular design — round-trip-airport buses, free transportation to the on-property mall — intentionally provides a physical disconnect from the outside. There’s no proper drugstore or grocery, just hotel gift shops with tiny packs of Tylenol, frozen meals, and some Disney-approved brands of beer. Many guests never step foot off its hallowed ground at all, a testament to Disney’s irresistible charm that may be more of a glimmering fantasy.
“Nothing on this trip at all has made me scared. Nothing,” said Suzy McGarrah, who flew from Kansas City to celebrate her 49th birthday. “It’s a big decision to make, to travel into a hot spot ... but we’re not traveling around Orlando. We’re not going to Target. We’re not going to restaurants in Orlando. We’re not going to the grocery store. I feel like we’re in a bubble. It’s been Disney ever since we stepped off the plane, so we put all of our trust in their hands, and I feel like they’ve taken care of our trust.”
Having been unsure before leaving — “I was terrified to come and I second-guessed it all the way until I got on the airplane” — she decided to travel after seeing on social media how well things went during park previews. Days later, influencers would be invited to attend Magic Kingdom’s opening day and encouraged to post about their experiences at the park related to health and safety.
Fans who attended the reopening have praised new procedures put in place, but the guest experience has shifted as well. Is it possible for visitors to vacation or even relax when safety needs to be top of mind?
As a Tampa-based Disney fan — “It’s been a part of my life forever, probably before birth” — Micaela Figueroa, 25, felt comfortable at Disney World with its new regulations but recognized she’d begun to let her guard down in doing so. “As a guest, I needed to be self-aware, way more than I have ever been going to a theme park,” she explained. “You want to go to Disney and hug the characters and stand right next to a neighbor and wave at characters from a parade and go eat at Cinderella’s Royal Table, and all that fun stuff. It definitely felt weird to make sure you’re double-checking yourself every minute.”
Jane Mayo, a 43-year-old “but I act 12” Disney fan and podcaster whose “whole life revolves around Disney,” felt similarly. “You’re there and you’re in this magical place where, for the most part, people go and they forget about the outside world. But there is not a second of my day that I am not thinking about Covid-19,” she said. “It’s great and comforting and there is a [feeling of] ‘I’m home!’ but there’s also, ‘I am home and now I’m concerned about my home.’”
Even the cheerful face behind popular Instagram account @MichaelDoesDisney — who prefers to keep his last name private — felt conflicted on his visit. “Normally the parks are a true escape for me. They are a place where I can go and act like a child again,” he said of his adoration for Disney. “For me, they’re just the happiest place out here.” Known for his effervescent joy, Michael, 30, confessed to his 55,000 followers that he found the experience to be stressful — not by Disney’s safety standards, but his own.
“When you’re going on a ride that’s only 90 seconds long, and you spend the first 30 of it questioning, ‘Did I sanitize? Did I touch the lap bar?’ ... it’s hard to have a decent fun time, in my opinion,” he said.
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FUN but STRESSFUL & MAGICAL but ABNORMAL. ✨ these are the two ways that I WOULD personally describe my 2 days at @waltdisneyworld. ♂️ i wish i could sit here and type out that "everything was amazing" being back at Disney, but unfortunately that would be an unrealistic statement. I am probably one or the most positive and optimistic people you'll ever meet/follow but I've also never been one to "spin" things in a way to make them seem absolutely perfect, when unfortunately they're not. i have finally gathered all of my THOUGHTS on going to Disney right now. SWIPE to read all of them! i know it's a lot, but i did my best to look at this from an unbiased perspective and to put my thoughts into the simplest bullet points that i possibly could. ♂️
There’s merit to the concern. CDC guidelines such as social distancing, mask-wearing, and hand-washing are effective, not foolproof, as any public activity and associated travel present a risk. “I have no doubt [Disney is] taking it seriously and doing their best under the very difficult circumstances, but this is a moment where doing your best doesn’t equal zero transmissions,” said Rep. Eskamani. “It’s just impossible.”
Take into consideration, too, that Central Florida has faced a staggering caseload in communities where those who keep the Mouse running call home. With thousands of visitors to the parks each day, some traveling across the country to do so, it goes without saying that the coronavirus will also be present.
Reports of Universal Orlando Resort employees contracting Covid-19 floated around Twitter and among employees in the weeks after it opened, many of whom spoke to Vox on the condition of anonymity due to internal reporting procedures. One team member divulged that so many positive cases had been tied to the park’s entertainment division that it was being nicknamed “ground zero” among coworkers.
According to a Universal Orlando Resort spokesperson:
Privacy concerns would prevent us from sharing any specifics, but we can say the health and safety of our guests and team members is always our top priority. We have aggressive protocols in place and closely follow CDC guidelines: team members who test positive as well as team members who were in contact or near-contact would be required to self-quarantine. No one would be able to return to work until they had been medically cleared. In addition, our aggressive procedures call for us to thoroughly clean and disinfect any impacted areas before anyone is admitted to the area. And, as always, we will continue to follow CDC guidelines and have implemented destination-wide enhanced screening, spacing and sanitization procedures.
Similar discussions among employees appeared in the days surrounding Disney’s grand reopening as cases spiked at nearby grocery stores and a compilation of anonymous reports throughout the Orlando area grew longer each day. (Disney did not respond to a request for comment on this.) While explaining that no self-reported cases had been tied to viral outbreaks in the parks, Orange County Health Department’s Dr. Raul Pino confirmed that, indeed, some employees of Florida theme parks had become ill.
One Walt Disney World food and beverage employee considers contracting Covid-19 somewhat inevitable. “I’m not scared that I’m going to die from going to work,” he said. “But I realistically think some people will.” (Disney employees are explicitly unauthorized to speak to the media and have been granted anonymity for their candor.) Mayor Demings contends he will close the theme parks if cases are linked back, an unlikely proposition given Orange County’s spread is now so vast its Department of Health is attempting to contact trace effectively but is struggling to appropriately do so.
You won’t find Finding Nemo puppetry, immersive lightsaber-building, or Indiana Jones’s live stunts at Disney parks right now. Negotiations broke down between Disney and the Actors’ Equity Association, which represents 750 performers in more than 20 park productions, when the union requested safety measures like routine testing in line with doctor-recommended guidelines, resulting in around 250 performers having their “recall” back to work rescinded.
“Think about the work that an actor does,” says Brandon Lorenz, a spokesperson for Actors’ Equity. “You can’t socially distance when someone’s putting makeup on you. You can’t socially distance when someone’s putting a costume on you. The very nature of the work is just different than anyone else in the park.” (AEA has since filed a grievance, and Disney found temporary workarounds as members’ reactions are divided.) Due to union specificities, you can’t hear Belle sing but you can wave hello to her at Disney World, consciously distanced from other princesses, none of whom ever wear masks.
While around 20,000 of Disney’s union employees have been “called back” to return to work, the New York Times estimates about 23,000 more have been on furlough since April 19, left to grapple with Florida’s miserable benefits system. “Florida has had just a horrifying experience with unemployment,” explained Rep. Eskamani. “Both Orange and Osceola counties have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country [because] a large part of our economy has been service-driven and tourism-driven, and being able to access benefits has been really, really painful to this day.” Not only were many Floridians wrongfully deemed ineligible, not receiving approved benefits and missing $600 payments — an error Eskamani calls “super common” among the 16,000 cases she’s overseen — but the state’s system was designed so poorly it’s now the subject of a federal investigation.
Florida’s unemployment is also below average in both amount and duration, paying out $275 per week — $100 below the national average — for 12 weeks, the least amount of time nationwide. It’s why the CARES Act has been imperative for residents and potentially catastrophic if, upon its July 31 expiration, the new HEALS Act does not provide adequate unemployment insurance. Affordable housing remains an issue in the region as efforts including Tango Cares’s community kitchen, Feed the Need’s weekly distributions, and the donation-based volunteer-run Cast Member Pantry assist theme park employees who may be food-insecure.
On top of that, some workers may not get their jobs back at all. Universal Orlando laid off an undisclosed number of employees last month and canceled its annual Halloween Horror Nights event while Rosen Hotel, a central Florida chain with multiple convention center properties, announced more than 1,000 layoffs across its eight resorts, effectively halving its workforce. Tourism struggles like these can have ripple effects elsewhere; Thinkwell Group, a global design company used by theme parks worldwide, incurred large layoffs as well.
Disney employees I spoke with on the condition of anonymity are hopeful to return given the circumstances. One furloughed worker cannot wait to get back; another, already back in the parks, is surprised by the false sense of normalcy but continues to worry about guest behavior. One expressed frustration that take-home pay for a full workweek — in a theme park-issued costume and mask in the sun — is less than what they made on unemployment while safely sheltering in place, even though payments could be reduced or end soon.
Many workers “don’t feel like they have a choice but to go back to work. They might not feel safe going back to work, but they feel like the option is the only one to be able to pay their bills because they can’t rely on the unemployment system,” said Eskamani, emphasizing workers being put in uncomfortable positions if they care for an elder or have a child with a preexisting condition.
A petition by Protect the Magic Makers, a coalition of concerned cast members, yielded 20,000 signatures; a Facebook group for local theme park employees gives Disney workers an outlet for vital conversations about evolving protocol, like if gloves are now allowed or if anyone else had a reaction to new cleaning materials. One such discussion centered on company-provided face masks, which, to many members’ dismay, will be laundered and redistributed if turned in. “It’s basically the equivalent of wearing someone else’s underwear,” said one employee. “I find it super gross.”
Park employees who have returned to work are also given personal hand sanitizer, goggles for any bus transportation, and face shields for certain guest-facing roles. Those masks, made of thick fabric yet intended for use in a humid climate, are but one new stressor of a pandemic-era workweek. The intersection of old habits and updated procedures causes trouble too, as employees struggle to effectively communicate through physical barriers and plexiglass walls.
“I don’t think there was any bad intent at all, but when we reopened, someone came up and I couldn’t hear her, so she pulled down her mask to her chin and leaned around the barrier,” said one Walt Disney World employee who works directly with visitors. “Guests are always a wild card. The vast majority of people are on board with safety procedures and trying their best to do their part, but it really only takes a few people.”
Disney’s theme parks have made concessions to standard procedure by alleviating disciplinary “points” for employees calling out of work through August, but hazard pay is not offered; the Walt Disney Company’s corporate offices have not yet reopened for business as those employees continue to work from home.
Disney’s Florida resort is quietly powered by a legion of college-age participants in its Disney College Program, which was abruptly canceled in March and suspended until 2021. Professional internships suffered a similar fate, as Epcot, short on cultural representatives that typically staff some of its 11 country pavilions, has Americans scooping caramel corn in a German sweets shop and serving baguettes in a French boulangerie.
Even with the challenges, risks, and uncertainty, it’s more than just a workplace for many who have hung their Mickey-eared hat in this place. Carly Chomen and Hannah Gray, Disney College Program participants and former roommates whose experience was cut short, traveled from Texas to attend Walt Disney World’s reopening. “We decided we were the last ones in the park, so we wanted to be one of the first ones back,” Chomen explained. When asked how they felt to be back, the duo responds in unison — “very emotional!” — particularly after Carly first saw Main Street Confectionary, her former work location.
“We were in tears, so excited to be back,” said Chomen of the emotional pull of Disney’s Florida resort.
“It’s just home.”