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Disney World staffer recounts ‘scary’ experience working during coronavirus

Earlier this summer, amid skyrocketing COVID-19 rates in Florida and urgings from public health experts to go into lockdown, Disney World reopened its gates. The decision to reopen was highly criticized, with many wondering how the theme park could possibly keep guests safe, happy, and healthy during a global pandemic. But little notice was paid …

Earlier this summer, amid skyrocketing COVID-19 rates in Florida and urgings from public health experts to go into lockdown, Disney World reopened its gates. The decision to reopen was highly criticized, with many wondering how the theme park could possibly keep guests safe, happy, and healthy during a global pandemic. But little notice was paid to the 77,000 employees of Disney World — some of whom had been furloughed since April — and whether they wanted to be back at the Happiest Place on Earth in the first place. 

Kinsey Doerr is a ride operator at Space Mountain in Tomorrowland, the futuristic section of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom; she’s also the shop steward of UNITE HERE! Local 362 in Orlando, one of the unions for Disney World “cast members” (the company’s term for park employees). She started out as a lifeguard at Disney hotels and water parks, then in 2018 transferred to attractions at the Magic Kingdom to work at Space Mountain, her favorite ride.

On an average, pre-pandemic day, Doerr would rotate between dispatching the rocket ship vehicles, scanning guests’ Magic Bands (digitized wristbands that provide entry into the park), and making sure guests were secure in their vehicles by checking their lap bars. Now, her duties are the same, yet she comes to work every day worried that she’s going to contract a potentially fatal illness. Before the park reopened, “just going to Target every day was scary,” she says. “Even though we’ve been open for about a month now, I still am afraid to go to work.” 

In conjunction with the unions, Disney has instituted safety and hygiene guidelines for reopening the park, including limiting guest capacity, instituting social distancing measures, and requiring all guests over the age of two to wear masks except when eating and drinking (it has recently banned guests from eating while walking). Many employees have also praised Disney for its safety measures, but Doerr and another cast member who spoke with Rolling Stone said it could still stand to do better. In a statement to Rolling Stone, a Disney spokesperson said, “Seven unions representing 48,000 cast members signed agreements to have their employees return to work, and we continue to evaluate and adjust our approach along the way, as the situation evolves.”

Rolling Stone spoke with Doerr about what working conditions are like at the park. Multiple other press reports, the other cast member at the parks, and Disney corroborated different details of her account. The following is a condensed and edited version of the conversation.

A Walt Disney World employee wears a mask and face shield at the park.AFP via Getty Images

I’m a huge Disney person. I mean, I was at the parks for the first time when I was five years old. I was just enthralled by the magic. I think that’s probably why a lot of people work at Disney. Most of us are just really inspired by the magic of it. And what I always wanted to do was make magic for people. Space Mountain was my favorite ride in Magic Kingdom, so it was so exciting when I found out that that was one I’m gonna go work at. And that’s where I’ve worked ever since.

When we found out we were furloughed, I think that people thought it was very unnecessary at the time. Most people that I talked to thought we’d be closed for a week or two. I didn’t really understand how long we would be closed for, let alone that it’d last three and a half months. So it was just a very surreal time. All the cast was very confused. It was very, very strange just to not only be going through a global pandemic, but have the Happiest Place on Earth close when we’ve actually only done that five times since opening in the 1970s, and mostly for hurricanes. 

I found out I was being called back into work in the middle of June. I first heard from the bosses of my union and then through word of mouth. I think Disney ended up sending e-mails and giving a lot of phone calls to people. But originally, people didn’t really know what was happening. In merchandise or food and beverage, they didn’t have a full recall…. Whereas in attractions, they did an entire recall of everybody.

‘I’d rather have panic attacks at work, I guess, and get paid for it.’

Obviously it was a huge question for me and all my coworkers. Like, how many people are going to be allowed in the park? How on earth do they think that they’re going to manage to keep all these guests six feet apart from one another at all times? How are they going to make sure that guests are wearing their masks? We can’t even tell people not to jump the line half the time, so I don’t know how Disney would expect us to tell people they need to keep their masks on. And like, how are we as cast members supposed to tell guests what they need to do to help keep us safe? [But] I made the decision to come back to work. All I really needed to say was, hey, am I going to make money or am I going to sit and have panic attacks in my house all day? I’d rather have panic attacks at work, I guess, and get paid for it.

Where I work in Magic Kingdom, we have to take a bus into work from the parking lot. So when we go to the bus, we have to make sure that we’re wearing our masks, and then we get safety goggles that are issued to every person that has to take that bus. And then once we get off the bus, normally we would just walk to work, clock in, hang out in the break room, but instead, you get in a line. They send five or 10 people into a room to clock in together and you have to use hand sanitizer before you clock in, and then you punch in, and then you have to use hand sanitizer. Then you go to a manager and they ask if you have passed all of your self-assessment checks, which are basically, have you tested positive for COVID, or have you been exposed to anyone who’s tested positive. Then you actually get your temperature checked — every single day — by management, which seems great because they’re doing that for guests [too], but as we all know, there’s a lot of people that are asymptomatic with COVID-19. So I don’t know how much that’s necessarily helping in the long run.

We wear face shields and get three masks that we check out from costuming. We look like aliens half of the time. My dad’s a paramedic and he and I are wearing the same equipment, the same PPE to work every day, which just blows my mind, because I operate a roller coaster.

We’re not required to be tested at all. We don’t have any Disney-only testing centers. We don’t have any mandates that say we have to get tested if someone in our area tests positive for COVID-19. They may tell our leadership about it. Our leadership doesn’t have to tell us. Some cast members have taken it upon themselves to inform everyone they work with that they’ve tested positive and basically telling you you should go out and get tested. But Disney will not [necessarily] tell us if anyone that we work with has tested positive.

[Editor’s note: This was confirmed by an internal email shared with Rolling Stone, which states that Disney “will not disclose specific information about employees who have confirmed COVID-19 cases” but will share the information with close contacts “as needed.” Another cast member said that if cast members test positive, they are supposed to tell their managers, who are supposed to inform other people who work closely with them to get tested and quarantine for two weeks. Disney said it has consulted with public health agencies to implement protocols if someone tests positive.]

Magic Kingdom guests approach a temperature check area before entering the park on July 11.Gregg Newton/AFP via Getty Image

Honestly, I think managers have this very fine line. Obviously they need to keep their cast members safe, but their biggest priority is keeping their guests happy. For example, at Space Mountain, when you get off the ride, there’s photos, and if you want to look at your photo, you have to stand there and wait a few seconds for your photo to pop up. Well, there’s four other families’ photos that are popping up at the same time. And so that makes all the guests congregate together and then we have to tell them, “Hey, guys, you can’t stand there. You need to move six feet apart.” And that makes it really hard for management, because they want the guests to be happy. They want the guests to see their photos. And then when we, as cast members, try to tell [the managers] that we feel unsafe, that the guests are crowding each other, it doesn’t always feel like it’s heard. I think they put the guest happiness in front of safety sometimes.

I think for the most part, our managers understand the severity of COVID-19 and that we’re still in a global pandemic. I think that some of them take it a lot more seriously than others. For example, I’ve seen one of our managers walking around without a mask on and in no world is that OK during a time like this. But it’s also really hard because it just feels so difficult to ask thousands of people to go work in an environment that just can’t be safe.

Going into work every day is very nerve-wracking. It gives me a lot of anxiety knowing that there are people who might have the disease and just haven’t told anyone about it, or that they have told management about it and management hasn’t told us. It’s scary. We don’t know the exact amount of cast members that have been sick. I know personally of a few cases as a shop steward. A lot of people feel more comfortable coming to us [at the union] and telling us about those kinds of things than they do speaking to the management team. But I know that just in Florida, we had almost 9,000 cases yesterday, and that’s the lowest it’s been in like two weeks, and so it’s hard to imagine that some of those aren’t coming out of Disney World, especially through cast members and through guests that are traveling to get here. 

We’ve had a lot of really good guests who wear their masks properly the entire time. But there’s also a lot of guests, obviously, that we have to tell they need to have their mask at all times. A lot of guests think that they can take their masks off on the ride, and that’s a big no-no. When they’re screaming down a roller coaster, they need to have their mask on. A lot of guests don’t like that.

‘Going into work every day is very nerve-wracking.’

The biggest issue with guests not wearing the masks is when they are walking around the park with a snack or with a drink and don’t pull the mask down. They’ll just walk around, you know, sipping on a Coke without wearing their mask. I think that that’s something that Disney has actually cracked down on in the last week or two. The most difficult interactions I’ve had with a few guests were just telling them that they need to keep their masks on their nose. I’ve had a few guests tell me that they’re wearing it properly and that it doesn’t matter. Some of the guests just don’t care…. Guests are told before they come in that if they’re not wearing the mask the entire time they’ll be asked to leave. I don’t know if that’s actually happened. I haven’t heard any stories of guests actually getting kicked out. I don’t know if it’s actually being enforced. I couldn’t say. Guests get their way a lot at Disney, that’s all I can say.

It’s really difficult watching guests come into the park every single day and get on the rides every single day. We still see a lot of elderly guests and a lot of guests bringing newborn babies to the park or people riding around in the ECVs [motorized scooters] because they’re older and it’s really hard to look at them and think, “Well, they’re probably putting their own lives at risk at this point as well as mine.” It’s just difficult to look at every single guest and think “What made them come to this park today, when Florida had 200 deaths a few days ago?”

It’s hard to talk about the company that I work for, and that I love, in a negative way. But again, it’s really difficult being a cast member in the happiest place on Earth in the middle of a pandemic when it feels almost like they don’t care about you getting sick. I believe the corporate offices are still closed. I think that they’re still having all of their meetings, essentially, virtually. [Editor’s note: Disney said that all employees who have been working remotely have been continuing to do so.] So since we’ve been open for almost a month and they haven’t decided to open themselves up it really does say something. It feels like our lives as cast members are more expendable than theirs. And it feels like they think of us as numbers. And then they can hide and do their press releases and stuff in the privacy of their own home where they can continue to quarantine and we can’t.

I think that most cast members recognize that we probably shouldn’t be working during a time like this. We see Bob Chapek and and all the CEOs of Disney not in the parks. They don’t know what’s happening. Maybe they came one day for some photos or some video to release. [Editor’s note: Disney disputes that executives have not spent substantial time in the parks.] I don’t know if you’ve seen the welcome home video going around Twitter and Facebook — they just feel so fake when you watch them, because we want everyone to come home, we want everyone to come back to the parks, but we want them to come back when they’re healthy and when there’s not the imminent threat of possibly contracting a disease that will mess up your lungs for life.

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Cast members are ready to welcome guests back to Walt Disney World Resort.✨

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I think that we’d been closed for three or four months and the higher ups at Disney thought, if we don’t open now, how are we ever going to open again? How are we going to keep having profit? I mean, they stopped paying cast members in April and put them on unemployment. They obviously thought that they were going to lose some amount of money that they couldn’t make up in their bonuses every year. And I guess they just thought, ‘Let’s let people come to the parks,’ because there’s always going to be people that are going to come to the parks no matter how safe it is or how dangerous it is. There’s always gonna be people that will go to Disney, and if they have to wear a mask, they have to wear a mask. But they just say, ‘Hey, there’s a five minute wait for Space Mountain to the park right now!’ And it’s just putting so many people’s lives at risk. [I also] blame Governor [Ron] DeSantis for the fact that the parks are open right now. I think that even if Disney CEOs begged him to reopen and he said no, we would not be able to be open. And yet he thinks that this pandemic is a joke and he has from the beginning, and he hasn’t taken anything seriously. And I think he’s risking a lot of lives by allowing us to be open.

I just don’t think that Disney will be safe until we don’t have to wear masks to work anymore. And I just don’t think that’s [happening] anytime soon. We’re still wearing masks in Target and in Walmart and in airports and we can choose to socially distance ourselves there when it’s a necessity to buy groceries. Disney is not a necessity. And it just doesn’t feel like it will be safe riding the teacups while in the back of your mind, the entire time, you’re thinking, am I going to get this disease? 

I don’t think that it’s ethical to be at Disney World right now. And I know a lot of people, even people that I work with, might disagree with that. But this disease hasn’t changed. When we went into lockdown, the numbers were lower than they are now. We still have a lot of deaths every single day in Florida. And I think going to a theme park is probably the least essential thing that you could do in the middle of a global pandemic. You don’t need to go to a theme park and risk your lives and other people’s lives that are there, that have to work, that cannot not be working. We make $13.50 an hour right now, and it’s just not worth that small sum of money to put your life in danger every day for guests that don’t care.

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