[Update: Disney decided to close its parks in Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Disney World Resort in Orlando, and Disneyland Paris hours after The Verge’s story went live. The headline has been changed to reflect the update. Parks will close beginning on Sunday March 15th, and stay closed through the end of the month. Part of the resorts will remain open, including retail and dining experiences at Disney World Resort. The hotels at Disney World Resort and Disney Paris will remain open for now, according to a statement from the company. Paris, Anaheim, and Orlando join parks and resorts in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo in closing. The company is also asking domestic employees across all verticals — Disney Studios, Disney Television, ESPN, direct-to-consumer, and Parks — to work from home if possible. The original story continues below.]
In the US, there are more than 1,300 confirmed coronavirus cases, and extreme precautions are being taken to contain the spread as that number is expected to rise. As more cases pop up in California and Florida — home of Disney’s two parks in the United States — and visitors continue to enter the resorts, it’s the cast members (the terminology Disney uses to refer to employees) who are left to wonder what happens next. The Verge has reached out to Disney for more information about the current plan regarding its parks divisions in the United States; the company has already closed parks in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.
“We have heard very little from management about the response to COVID-19,” one employee with knowledge of the situation, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, told The Verge. “I haven’t heard a single word about other parks closing, almost like it is a dirty secret. I’ve seen a lot of companies talking about extended sick leaves, working from home, and working with insurance to ensure free testing but nothing of the sort from Disney other than ‘wash your hands.’”
Pamela Hymel, chief medical officer for Disney parks, said in a statement that Disney parks are exceptionally clean destinations, but acknowledged the company is keeping an eye on things.
“As part of our commitment to the health and well-being of our cast, guests and the larger community, we are carefully monitoring the evolving coronavirus situation and are in regular contact with health agencies for information and guidance,” Hymel said on March 10th. “Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort, are welcoming guests as usual and we continue to implement preventive measures in line with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health agencies.”
Disneyland Paris issued a formal statement today confirming it will remain open while lowering the number of people who can enter the park in accordance with new country policies. Between March 12th and April 15th, queue lines won’t exceed 1,000 people, which follows France’s coronavirus-fighting measures. While parades at the park have been canceled during the period, restaurants, shops, and attractions remain open. In France, the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases rose from 497 cases on Tuesday to 2,281 cases today. More than 30 people have died, and more than 100 are in serious condition. That number is expected to grow.
Disney’s cast member situation is unique. Many of the cast members live together in apartments near the park. This employee told The Verge that although they don’t have day-to-day interactions with guests, they live with a number of cast members who do. “If one gets it, we all get it,” they explained. Due to the unique living arrangements for so many of the park’s employees, there’s fear the virus could spread quickly. It also means that a large number of cast members and employees could have to undergo a two-week quarantine. Full-time Disney park employees receive full health benefits. There is also a clinic on-site that employees can go to that is cheaper, but not free.
“Imagine if this breaks out in the college program housing,” they said, referring to a Disney program that pairs a number of people together in one house. “I feel like they have to address these things but that it would dig deep into a culture of underpaying and intern labor.”
Closing Disney parks could also have benefits for public health at large. Past cases show how preventing big gatherings can lead to diminishing cases instead of a rise in infected people. In 1918, during the influenza epidemic, fewer people died in cities that closed places like schools and churches ahead of time. St. Louis was able to reduce the spread of disease by canceling sports games and closing movie theaters when the epidemic was still in its early stages. This helps to explain why a number of major events have been canceled, including SXSW, Emerald City Comic Con, and the Geneva Motor Show.
Disney’s executive team is keenly aware of the issue. Executive chairman Bob Iger told shareholders at the company’s annual shareholder meeting yesterday that “it’s fair to say we’re all sobered by the concern that we feel for everyone affected by this global crisis,” adding that “these are challenging times for everyone.”
“What we’ve demonstrated over the years is that we’re incredibly resilient,” Iger told shareholders. “If you think about the world today, what we create has never been more necessary or more important.”
Neither Iger nor Bob Chapek, Disney’s new CEO, addressed future park closures at length. Chapek, who used to run Disney’s parks division before stepping into Iger’s previous role as head of the company, touted the opening of Avengers Campus at Disneyland in July 2020 — a massive extension to the park that brings many of the Marvel Cinematic Universe characters to the physical space. There was no direct talk about the closures of parks in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hong Kong — or what happens to Paris, Anaheim, and Orlando. Disney currently doesn’t have a new parks head following Chapek’s promotion.
One analyst pointed out that although Disney parks will likely close their doors if the new coronavirus continues to spread throughout Orlando and Anaheim, it’s a $20 billion-a-year business. Disney will continue to operate the parks until it absolutely can’t — like the company did in China and Japan.
Since the outbreak, three emails have gone out: one from HR, one from Chapek, and one from Josh D’Amaro, the newly appointed president of Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, according to the employee. The company also set up a hotline for employees to call. But the teams haven’t received any information about whether they’ll be financially supported if they get sick. “I haven’t been spoken to about it by higher management once,” the employee said. A central hub that employees can use for ongoing information about the parks in general, which now has a COVID-19 portal, was updated today to reflect the state of California’s guidance to limit large gatherings.
“Disneyland Resort Cast Members are reporting to work today,” the message reads. “We have a dedicated team across our resort planning and activating to manage our operation and will share more as information becomes available. Walt Disney World Resort [in Orlando] remains open today and scheduled Cast Members should report to work.”
A union contract for employees states that Disney “may decide to pay us up to five days for missed work — ‘may’ being the key word,” according to the employee. Employees are worried that if the parks close, they won’t be able to afford food and rent. But the alternative, working at the parks and dealing with guests who may or may not be carrying the new coronavirus, is just as concerning.
“Everywhere I see the financial impact the virus is having, but almost nothing on the people impact,” the employee said. “Forcing full-time and part-time employees to not work and not get paid for a week to several weeks is incredibly scary. A lot of people here live week-to-week and this could devastate their lives.”
Update March 12th, 2:05pm ET: California governor Gavin Newsom announced in a press conference that Disneyland in Anaheim is exempt from the state’s ban on big crowd gatherings.