Two weeks ago, thousands of Disney employees were laid off as the company deals with financial challenges caused by COVID-19. The impact — on both individuals and the local economy — is devastating.
On Wednesday, Sept. 30, all Jennifer O’Leary could think about was, “Am I going to get ‘the call?’”
Throughout the day, the Disney cast member of 25 years had watched as her friends posted on social media about receiving the dreaded call from Disney informing them that they were being laid off.
It’s a feeling of impending doom, and O’Leary — who most recently worked as an event manager for conventions — did everything she could to keep her mind from exploding with stress.
“The funny thing is, you’re anxiety-ridden all day, because you’re just waiting for the phone to ring,” O’Leary, a Windermere resident, said. “So, basically, I thought I made it through the day because a lot of my friends were getting the calls. I didn’t eat anything all day, I basically cleaned my house and mowed my yard to keep myself busy.
“Finally, at about 7:30 (p.m.), one of my friends who had gotten the call earlier in the day at 4, he was like, ‘Let’s just go grab something to eat,’” she said. “I was in the car, and I got the call at 7:59, and your heart just sinks.”
O’Leary was one of the 6,700 non-union Disney World employees who received word that their position was eliminated. Throw in the 8,857 part-time union employees, and there were 15,000 people suddenly out of work.
THE ECONOMIC IMPACT
In April, when Disney furloughed a large portion of its workforce — which included O’Leary — the economic struggles already were underway.
In the second quarter of the fiscal year, Disney reported revenues of $475 million — a 91% drop from the $5.4 billion it made in the same time period one year ago.
Although that number is for Disney as a whole, the ongoing pandemic — which at one point closed both Walt Disney World and Disneyland — has led to a ripple effect throughout Orange County, said Jack Chambless, a professor of economics at Valencia College.
With tourism being the big driving factor in the area, a pandemic is devastating when people are not willing to travel as much — because of tightened budgets and safety — and the tourist options are more limited because of regulations.
“So now, as Disney starts to lay people off, we’re going to see the same sort of ripple effects — apartment complexes not being able to rent out all of their apartments to workers who are having to relocate or move back in with family,” Chambless said. “If apartment complexes now aren’t making as much money, they’re not going to have as much to pay people to keep up with the ground.
“Same thing with the restaurants,” he said. “We’re going to see fewer people eating out and doing what people normally do, so with Disney being such a huge employer, there is no possible way around the effect they’re going to have on all the other industries in the area. And of course, that ends up affecting tax collections, which affects budgets for schools, police and other areas.”
When Amy Baker — a Windermere resident — found out that her off-and-on 19-year career at Disney was coming to an end, there was sadness, but she knew she had to move forward in her life.
Baker always has had a love for Disney, and even as a child she knew it was where she wanted to work. So, in 2001, she started in the college program before going on to serve in numerous roles — most recently as an event planner for premium services and Club 33 members.
“I wanted to grow with that company, and I have been so lucky to do that over the last 19 years — I’ve had incredible jobs,” Baker said. “Right now, we are taking it one day at a time, and we always say, ‘Keep moving forward’ — that’s what Walt (Disney) always said. And we are finding new ways to put our skills to use.”
“Finally, at about 7:30 (p.m.), one of my friends who had gotten the call earlier in the day at 4, he was like, ‘Let’s just go grab something to eat.’ I was in the car, and I got the call at 7:59, and your heart just sinks.”
— Jennifer O'Leary
Throughout the months of furlough, and now with many out of work, former Disney employees are focusing their time on side hustles that have provided them with something to do, as well as a means of making ends meet.
In O’Leary’s case, the animal lover — who has five dogs — started up the WDW Cast Member And Hospitality Pets In Needs page on Facebook, which helps provide pet food and other items for those cast members and hospitality workers who need assistance. For Baker, a love of baking led to the creation of Baker Girl, which allows her to sell a small variety of baked goods — including a carrot cake based on a family recipe.
Through this side work, Baker also has been able to utilize all of the nuggets of training she learned while at Disney, she said.
“I definitely think I’m adding new skills to my résumé for sure — starting a business, running the business and figuring out how everything works in relation to that,” Baker said. “I’m definitely learning a lot, but I love taking the skills that I learned through Disney — customer-service skills, guest-service skills — and applying those to making sure that my guests are really happy with what they get.”
Furthermore, there is help being offered for former Disney employees looking for work. Most recently, former cast member Jon Carey started jobsforthe28k.com — a site that offers helpful resources to those needing assistance, as well as a place for employers to enter open job listings.
And in addition to the new possibilities for their careers, the time away from Disney has produced other unexpected positives. For Baker, that includes more time with her 1-year-old and 4-year-old children.
“Within that first month, I got to see my daughter take her first steps, and I’m not sure I would have gotten that if I was working full-time,” Baker said. “I am taking every day with my two little ones and seeing the things that they’re going to say next … being at home, doing what I’m doing, is helping me experience those moments, too.”