In 1993, 3-year-old Nathalie visited Disney World for the very first time. She watched in awe as a parade of entertainers and characters traveled through Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It was the moment, she says now, that Disney became the “end game” for her.
Sixteen years later, Nathalie’s childhood dream came true. She joined Disney through the Disney College Program as an employee at Animal Kingdom, eventually making her way to Hollywood Studios. There, she performed for the first time in a parade as a Disney World entertainer.
“I remember the day of my first parade, having tears in my eyes the entire time,” said Nathalie, who asked that Insider use only her first name.
Nathalie went on to work at Disney World for 11 seasons, mostly in entertainment as costumed and noncostumed characters, until everything came to a halt in April 2020. Amid the newly raging coronavirus pandemic, Nathalie and close to 43,000 other Disney World employees were abruptly furloughed. In December, Nathalie was among the thousands of Disney employees to be permanently let go.
Now, one year after the pandemic began, Nathalie and other former employees are still mourning the lives and careers they were building at Walt Disney World.
Are you a former Disney parks employee with a story you’d like to share? Get in touch with reporters Amanda Krause and Shoshy Ciment.
To many of the 13 employees who spoke to Insider for this story, most of whom asked for full or partial anonymity in case they return to their jobs, Disney was more than a workplace or source of income. It was the company and theme park they grew up with as kids, and it was where they planned to nourish and grow their careers.
After months of nerves, frustration, and disappointment, most of these employees have found new jobs and side hustles to stay afloat. But Disney is still the end game. And despite the layoffs, the theme park is still a crucial part of their identities. As the other parks reopen and vaccination rates tick upward, they wait hopefully for word that they can return to the “most magical place on Earth.”
The Orlando, Florida, resort employed about 77,000 workers before the pandemic. To date, Disney World has laid off nearly 18,000 people, with thousands more placed on an extended furlough. The Walt Disney Company plans to lay off a total of 32,000 workers through the first half of 2021, primarily at its parks in Florida and California. As of December, Disney World had reportedly already begun to call back some of its employees, though many still remain on furlough or laid-off. (Representatives for Disney World declined to share an on-the-record comment for this story.)
For some who were let go, the emotional toll of losing a job at Disney rivaled the financial one.
In many cases, Disney employees grew up watching the iconic movies and visiting the parks themselves. Those who work in the parks were often similarly enchanted with the company from a young age.
There’s also a sense of camaraderie among employees, many of whom dwell alongside one another in clusters of building complexes in Orlando. These communities help facilitate family-like ties among coworkers. “You go to the grocery store and you see people in their costumes,” said Nathalie, who lives in a residential complex near the parks that’s full of employees. “Orlando is Disney world.”
To an extent, Disney’s official designation of park employees as “cast members” — rather than “employees” — encourages this phenomenon. To a “cast member,” a job at Disney is a privileged role in a larger production, one that revolves around making magic in other people’s lives.
It’s home. We made family with the people we work with.
Alexis Craft, a former server at the Kona Cafe at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, said she faced a difficult financial situation when she was let go in December. But the sadness of losing a job she loved — and the ability to constantly visit the parks — was equally jarring.
While employees can visit Disney parks for free, regularly priced tickets, even with a Florida resident discount, can go for more than $100 a day. As a result, former employees on tighter budgets can no longer stop by the parks whenever they please.
“It sucks,” Craft, a mother of one (and soon to be two), said. She added that her mother, who holds an annual pass, is now the person who takes her son to the parks. “It really, really sucks to not be able to be there for all of that.”
“It’s not just a job,” another former employee who worked on and off at Disney World starting in 2004 said. This employee most recently worked in the bakery of Disney’s Yacht Club Resort. She was laid off on New Year’s Eve. Even non-guest-facing jobs at Disney have the unique ability to make magic in the park, she said. For her, that meant delighting hungry guests with Mickey-shaped pastries or with desserts sprinkled with edible pixie dust.
Her husband, a culinary worker at one of the Disney theme parks, has since been called back to work. Like many other laid-off employees, she’s still banking on being welcomed back.
“It’s home,” she said. “We made family with the people we work with.” Her children’s bedrooms are even decorated according to Disney themes, she said.
She’s been making and selling furniture, custom canvas paintings, Christmas stockings, baby carriers, and masks to supplement the family’s income. Many are Disney-themed, and she sells them in a Facebook group meant to promote the side hustles and creative ventures of former Disney employees.
The group, dubbed “Ear for Each Other,” was formed in August 2020 “to provide a space where furloughed and impacted Cast can showcase their side hustles,” according to the page’s description. Former magic-makers now sell character-themed cakes, posters, accessories, makeup sessions, and Mickey ears.
With more than 100,000 members, the group has also become a channel for members to support other former Disney employees. “It’s just a big community of family supporting each other,” the employee said.
Nevertheless, those who got to keep their jobs at Walt Disney World faced problems of their own. Over the summer, Insider interviewed four employees who had been called back to Walt Disney World during the pandemic. While thankful to be back, some described feeling a sense of “survivor’s guilt,” given that other employees were not as lucky.
On March 14, 2020, members of the Disney College Program learned in an email that their jobs were being suspended as Disney World temporarily closed.
The program, which provides internships and entry-level jobs for students and recent graduates, typically accepts about 12,000 people each year. But once the pandemic hit, thousands of students already enrolled in the program were abruptly sent home, while those who had been accepted for the following season had their programs canceled.
Though Disney doesn’t share exact numbers relating to its internship program, it’s estimated that more than 10% of its theme-park workforce is made up of Disney College Program participants. Many go on to have lengthy careers with the company. As a result, those who were just beginning their jobs with Disney — and hoping to stay long-term — had to pack up and leave their dreams behind. And they had no idea whether they’d be given a chance to return.
“There were a lot of things I wanted to do at Disney World,” 25-year-old Kathia Urbina told Insider. Urbina said she spent four years of college maintaining high grades and doing everything she could to prepare her application. Once accepted, she worked in Olivia’s Cafe at the Old Key West Resort for just two months.
I cried, ran to the bathroom, and threw up because I just didn’t want to hear it.Kelsey Thiel
Rachel Minot, a 20-year-old from New Jersey who worked at Hollywood Studios during her program, was preparing to go to work when she received the shutdown email. She said she remembered feeling “panicked, confused, and upset.”
“The way the email was worded, it sounded like your boyfriend breaking up with you over the phone and saying, ‘It’s not you it’s me. We can just go on a break,'” she said.
Emily from Virginia said she “fully broke down” in tears after hearing the news, and Kelsey Thiel, a 23-year-old from Kentucky who worked as a lifeguard, became physically sick.
“It was awful — just miserable,” Thiel said. “I cried, ran to the bathroom, and threw up because I just didn’t want to hear it. It was traumatizing for me in a way, and I felt really bad for probably the first three or four days after.”
As the 2020 DCP member Amber Hoag told Insider, few participants thought Disney World would actually shut down — no matter how bad the pandemic became.
“I remember specifically saying, ‘Disney cannot close. We barely shut down for anything,'” the 21-year-old Massachusetts native said, referencing conversations she and other employees had about Disney World staying open during hurricanes.
“This magical dream I had was no longer there, and I panicked because I needed to leave Florida,” Emily, 25, said. “We had just gone grocery shopping, so all of our food was being thrown away. A lot of our stuff we had to donate because it couldn’t fit in planes or cars. It was insane.”
As a result, Emily “just never went back home” to Virginia after being laid off. Her mom works as a radiologist, and she said it “didn’t seem safe.” She instead permanently moved to Florida in the middle of the pandemic.
But the heartbreak continued even after laid-off DCP employees settled at home.
“I was already upset and depressed that this very rare moment of my life was suddenly cut short,” Minot said. “For the first few weeks home, I wouldn’t leave my room. I would get food and stuff, but I wouldn’t go out. I wouldn’t really do anything.”
International members of the program faced entirely different problems, as borders to some countries temporarily closed while they were packing their suitcases. Urbina, who is from Guatemala, told Insider she had no choice but to stay on-site for an extra three weeks when she couldn’t return to Guatemala.
Despite the stress, some former employees looked back on their DCP experience fondly. In fact, nine told Insider they’d work for The Walt Disney Company again in some capacity if given the opportunity. “Of course I would go back,” Daniela Celma, a 25-year-old DCP participant from Mexico City, told Insider. “Disney is my life.”
Thiel, who described the program as “the absolute best thing that ever happened” to her, would do the same. From the moment she left the theme park, Thiel was ready to go back — she even left her bags packed for nearly two months after returning home to Kentucky, just in case Disney called.
“I would go back in a heartbeat,” she said. “I would throw things in suitcases and garbage bags and leave immediately.”
For other DCP members and regular employees, things were slightly less rosy.
“I just wish I had a bit more time to get a sense of closure. Everything was really rushed,” said the 30-year-old DCP participant Joshua Brown, who worked the front desk at the All-Star Sports resort.
Nathalie, the performer, and Craft, the former server, both said the letter informing them of the furloughs was jarring. According to a screenshot of the furlough letter viewed by Insider, the letter referred to recipients as “valued employees.”
“Throughout our time with Disney, we’ve always been told you’re not an employee, you’re a cast member. You’re part of our family,” Nathalie said. “So to be called an employee just made it seem very serious, and it was scary.” (A later letter informing employees about the layoffs did address recipients as “cast members,” according to a screenshot of the letter viewed by Insider.)
A seasonal employee, Nathalie hadn’t been working in the parks when she got the notice about her suspended employment. Her last time there came around December 2019, a few months before the parks officially closed in March.
“I still get to visit,” said Nathalie, whose boyfriend still works in merchandise at the parks. “But it just doesn’t feel the same anymore.”