A Message To Laid Off Disney Cast Members
Heartbreak and anger: the great, gut-wrenching, soul-crushing duo. Pair that with both relief and regret, and you end with a whole bunch of feelings that leads one to do the only logical thing — open Medium in the middle of the night and start writing.
In case you haven’t heard, Disney is in the midst of laying off 28,000 hourly employees, or “Cast Members.” This week, more layoffs came around. It has been several years since I worked in the “Most Magical Place On Earth,” but I still have a slew of contacts living in the land of palm trees and tourists. Over the past few days, many of them got the email they had been dreading. And now I find myself in limbo, torn between the supportive friend, and wanting to scream “f**k you” to the establishment on their behalf.
I worked in the entertainment department at Walt Disney World for six years. I was underpaid, frequently injured, and generally treated like complete and total shit by the company that paid the majority of my rent (you couldn’t work just for Disney and expect to afford your rent; we all had side jobs). I always knew that once I was done performing, I was done with Disney. When that day came, it didn’t make it any easier to leave. I felt my stomach drop as soon as I gave my notice, and those last two weeks felt like I was living every minute in slow motion and also that it happened in the blink of an eye. On my last day, I cried so hard that a manager I had never met before stopped to ask me if I was okay. I sobbed and sobbed, and for well over a year after I had left, I wondered if I had made the right choice.
I actively chose to walk away. Tens of thousands of others didn’t. This time, none of them knew they were having their last hug, signing their last autograph, or putting on their final pair of company-issued Keds. The attractions cast member didn’t know they were celebrating a child who was finally tall enough to ride for the last time, and the merchandise cast member didn’t realize that it was their final time ‘merchantaining’. None of them knew that they would never be back to grab their nametag from their locker or sneak that backstage picture they always said they would get.
Working in the land of childhood imagination and cartoon characters that bring smiles to millions comes with a special kind of connection. Entertainment is silly and serious; it’s hard and perfect; it’s a job no one can truly understand, and one everyone wants. Despite the challenges of the company, the role itself is not an easy one to leave. But for anyone reading this, I promise you that those memories will never leave. You will not forget the child who jumps up and down the whole time they are in line just to run away when they suddenly get close. If you close your eyes hard enough, you’ll still be able to feel the tug of the little one that refuses to let you go or see the adult crying because they finally met their favorite character. You’ll also remember the time you got peed on, the man who inappropriately grabbed Minnie Mouse, and several of the occasions when you got in trouble for spending too much time with a family instead of ‘moving the line’. And for those memories? You won’t care. The positive ones will be so much stronger. A virus might have taken away your ability to choose your exit, but it can’t take away your memories.
For all the pixie dust of the job, I can’t help but feel fury over the company’s handling of all of this. Some affected employees got an email beginning with “Dear Valued Employees.” Others received “Dear Valued Cast Member.” No one, it seems, got an email with their name on it. What would have taken them mere minutes to automate a system to input a name wasn’t worth their time. I think we all knew we were numbers in the Disney machine, but at least before they made somewhat an effort to pretended they cared about the people that made their parks run. Now, they have reinstated their executives’ full salaries and are sending out emails to their underpaid hourly employees by the masses that all look exactly the same.
The people that work in the Disney theme parks do not do it for the money. Most of them work multiple jobs just to scrape by. They don’t do it for the company; They do it for the magic; They do it for the guests; They do it for the smiles. I knew the company that I worked for didn’t give a damn about me. Any doubt I had about that was made entirely clear when I developed permanent spinal damage from a costume, and my leadership assumed I was making it up to get out of doing that role (I’ll forever be in chiropractic care as a result of that multi-year incident). But I still couldn’t walk away for another two years. Because every time I was mad at the company, a smiling face would make it go away.
I’ve been gone for four years now, and I can see clearly what an insult this is. In some instances, people who have been pouring their hearts and souls into their work for literal decades are being told goodbye by a generic email. I would venture to guess that most people understand that many of these jobs have become nearly impossible in the times of COVID-19, and it’s entirely comprehensible that layoffs would tremendously affect these departments. But employees of a Fortune 100 company should at least expect the common decency of having their name input in a goodbye email. No one deserves to be treated simply as a cog in a machine during good times, but it stings even worse when the world is upended, and we are in a physical and mental health crisis.
So, for all of you that are still taking the time to mourn and reflect and understand and process, allow yourself the space to do that and let me be mad for you. Coming to terms with it being over wasn’t easy when it was my choice; to have it beyond your control will take time and patience to come to grips with. While you do that, I’ll be outraged for you. I don’t have to know every person affected to know that each of you is worth more than this. Each one of you is worthy of a place that respects you. I hope you all find a path that brings you to places you never expected to go, that lights up your heart and brings you creative fulfillment, challenging you to grow and valuing your input. Lean on the relationships you built to provide references or network connections to set you on this new path. Cherish every laugh, every smile, and every accomplishment. You created happiness. Now, you get to recreate your own.