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Disneyland and Other Theme Parks Prepare to Reopen — and Bring Back Thousands of Workers Amid Pandemic

A view outside Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California on February 18, 2021.
Michael Buckner/PMC

With Los Angeles County and Orange County’s COVID-19 cases subsiding enough for each region to potentially leave the most-heightened tier of restrictions, and Disneyland hoping to reopen its gates by late April, thousands of Southern California’s theme park workers are poised to return to work after enduring a grueling yearlong shutdown of the region’s amusement parks.

Disneyland, the second-most popular theme park in the world, has plans to bring back 10,000 furloughed workers for its reopening, announced Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Chapek at the company’s annual shareholder meeting Tuesday. The news followed adjusted guidelines from California officials that will allow theme parks, ballparks and stadiums to reopen as early as April 1, so long as they meet certain virus case rate thresholds.

While in line to get her COVID-19 vaccination, Unite Here Local 11 co-president Susan Minato told Variety on Monday, a day before to Chapek’s announcement, that her team has had “extensive discussions around safety” with Disney and Universal about the union’s nearly 5,000 members that work at both parks.

“We have had a pretty excellent experience, honestly,” she said of those conversations. “Just to give you an example, Universal kept healthcare to the end of this year for furloughed workers, [which is] wonderful for the workers but also a great contribution to containing the disease.”

Local 11, whose membership totals 33,000, represents about 3,000 workers at the Disneyland Resort hotels in Anaheim, Calif. and between 1,500 and 1,800 food service workers at Universal Studios Hollywood and its nearby hotels. The union also counts about 1,000 Dodgers Stadium food service workers among its membership, though it has not yet had discussions with stadium operators on the topic of reopening.

Stadiums will be eligible to reopen to 100 or fewer people while in the current, most-restrictive purple tier, i.e. seven or more new daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, per the state’s four-tier color-coded framework. Theme parks will have to wait until their respective counties reach the red tier, or four to seven daily new cases, at which point they can open at 15% capacity, according to the California Department of Public Health. While San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange County are currently in the purple, the latter two counties are poised to enter the red.

Universal Studios Hollywood has not yet announced a full park reopening date, though president and COO Karen Irwin shared in a statement that the park is “developing its reopening plans and will share more information soon.” Six Flags Magic Mountain, Knott’s Berry Farm and Legoland California Resort also have not disclosed opening dates, though Legoland tweeted that it would make an official announcement once San Diego enters the red tier.

Allowing a very limited number of guests at the start will make for quiet days at the parks — part of the new normal in the era of social distancing. That capacity figure will rise as cases drop and counties reach less restrictive tiers.

“I can’t recall many days in the last 10 to 15 years where we’ve had 15% attendance” at Disneyland, said Chris Duarte, the president of Workers United Local 50, which represents around 5,600 food and beverage workers. A wave of layoffs has shrunk its membership from a pre-pandemic count of around 7,800.

With the largest contingency of members who work at Universal Studios Hollywood, IATSE Local B-192 represents ride operators, tour guides, retail associates, show crew, production assistants and those who work the front gate, parking lot, park services and show control. The group had around 2,500 to 3,000 active members before the pandemic hit; hundreds were laid off last fall.

Local B-192 president Nicole Miller compares a 15% guest limit at Universal Studios Hollywood to a “very slow off-peak day in a normal [pre-pandemic] situation,” akin to a Tuesday in mid-January, when the park would be “pretty empty.” It’s not yet apparent which rides Universal would be able to switch back on, given how many of them, from ‘The Simpsons’ ride to Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, are indoor attractions. Also unclear is how such narrow attendance would translate to business at Disneyland’s hotels, said Unite Here’s Minato, since at this stage, only California residents can visit the parks upon reopening.

These factors make it more difficult for the unions to predict how many staffers will be able to return to work at first.

Additionally, concerns remain about the health risk of attending and working at larger-scale gatherings at this stage of the pandemic, particularly when a majority of Americans have not yet been vaccinated and a new, more contagious variant has begun circulating in the U.S. Still, there’s reason to believe that demand will be plentiful once Disneyland brings its ticket sales back online.

Disney chief Chapek expressed bullishness on consumer sentiment over the past week, noting at a Morgan Stanley conference that he expects “demand is going to rebound quite handsomely,” though the recovery will largely depend on the speed of U.S. vaccine distribution and people’s willingness to go on vacation.

Ahead of a full park reopening, Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood are each hosting ticketed food events that, in the latter company’s words, is a “first step in re-opening.” When tickets for a Touch of Disney went on sale the morning of March 4, the online queue had to be paused due to demand. (Variety‘s attempt to buy tickets at around 10 a.m. that day resulted in a nearly five-hour wait before the queue finally opened for a sale.) Disney extended the number of days available, which also quickly sold out.

Duarte says about 400 to 500 of Local 50’s members are headed back to work for a Touch of Disney, which currently runs from March 18 through April 19 but will release more tickets on a rolling basis. Miller expects around 200 employees, around half of which are part of Local B-192, to return for the Taste of Universal.

“We’re optimistic that more members are able to return to work sooner than expected,” said Local 50’s Duarte, “and we will engage Disney every step of the way, as we always do, to make sure we’re on the same page on safety protocols and execution for our members, which in turn benefits the company and our guests.”

The reopening of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. last July, mere months after the pandemic hit American shores, was seen by one epidemiologist as potentially “inviting disaster.” When Disneyland considered reopening the same month, the Coalition of Resort Labor Unions — which includes Unite Here 11, Workers United Local 50 and eight other unions — wrote to California Gov. Gavin Newsom in June 2020 to convey that they were “not yet convinced that it [was] safe to reopen the parks on Disney’s rapid timetable.”

Since then, a slow-but-steady vaccination distribution effort has rolled out on a national and local scale, and L.A. County’s food service workers have in recent weeks become eligible to sign up for COVID shots. Case rates and hospitalization levels are gradually decreasing, though the State of California is still far from eliminating the virus and L.A. is just coming off of a winter surge. But the presence of a vaccine appears to have changed the tenor of the conversation from one that would’ve taken place last summer.

For many in the entertainment industry and beyond, the past year has offered no easy choices, absent a deeper governmental safety net. Since film and television production kicked back into gear in the fall, talent and crews have had to choose between forgoing income or returning to set in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

“It feels a lot of times like a double bind,” said Miller of the circumstances. “There’s no question that [our members have] been suffering financially.”

The majority of B-192’s membership has been collecting unemployment insurance, and some have struggled with food insecurity, she said, with some workers even becoming homeless. Duarte says Local 50 sees between 250 and 400 people a month picking up supplies from the union-organized food bank.

As thousands of workers look to get back to work, B-192’s Miller says communication with Universal on the topic of safety has been positive, and the union wants the company to offer paid time off for workers to get vaccinated. Unite Here Local 11 has so far engaged in conversations with Disney about ventilation issues, PPE, face shields and other safety measures to protect its membership ahead of getting called back to work.

So as they dust off the rides and get Space Mountain ready for takeoff, much will still have to be hammered out in the weeks to come. Disneyland, which itself has become a major vaccination site, has not yet disclosed plans for offering worker vaccinations or routine COVID-19 testing.

Chapek said Tuesday that Disney’s preparations for reopening will include retraining staff to operate according to the state’s new requirements. And workers are likely able to look to Disney World for an example of what their new work experience may shape up to be, with distancing, temperature checks, increased disinfecting of high-traffic areas and surfaces, and of course, masks at all time, among other measures.

“As time has progressed, the need to deal with financial insecurity escalates, but that doesn’t mean our members don’t want it to be safe,” said Miller.