The parks of Disney and Universal offer an escape to the worlds of fantasy. Reeling from a seemingly unstoppable pandemic, Americans long for such an escape. But visitors to these theme parks -- the ones that have reopened -- find reality still around them: Parades and fireworks canceled because they draw crowds; cost-contact character interactions forbidden; and masks required on everyone. Even the rides that have resumed normal operation are at decreased capacity for social distancing.
But attractions are only one part of theme park experience. These fantasy worlds are truly brought to life by the employees. I was one of them, and my employer, Universal Studios Hollywood, drilled into my head that I was a contributor to guests’ happiness. I saw the truth of this countless times; As a VIP Guide at Universal Studios Hollywood, I took guests all over the property. A single friendly encounter from a ride operator or food service worker could make a family’s entire vacation. A bad one would sour their mood for hours.
Employees are an overlooked factor in the experiment to re-open theme parks. I spoke to several employees of major Southern California theme parks, which have not yet re-opened, and a senior employee at an Orlando park, which has. Despite the differences, both are anxious, and scared for their lives.
Their concerns fall into three categories: Their safety, the guests’ safety, and the enforcement of new health protocols.
With Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, SeaWorld San Diego, and Knott’s Berry Farm temporarily closed, these workers have no choice but to wait. But soon they’ll face the same dilemma found around the country: Return to work and endanger their health, or stay home with perhaps no income at all. But those I spoke to felt that there were just too many uncertainties, and that the parks are right to remain closed. “I don’t know anyone who’s ready to go back,” one Southern California employee told me (all names withheld so the workers could speak freely).
Another said, “I thought Orlando opened too soon, and that park is much more spacious than [mine],” noting their own park features narrow pathways and confined travel areas. And when the park does open? One employee confessed: “I don’t trust the guests.” Another told me they’re “not in a hurry to go back.” At least one theme park union is pushing for additional sick pay, along with protections for workers who would prefer to take a leave of absence rather than put themselves at risk.
These workers’ hypothetical future is their Orlando colleagues’ reality. And it isn’t pleasant.
“I have seen team members crying in their cars trying to pull it together just to make it to the time clock,” the Orlando employee told me. “We are worried. We are scared. We want to go home and stay alive.” Their company has instituted policies that employees say aren’t just ineffective or nonsensical, but downright dangerous.
For example, the Orlando employee’s management provided masks for all workers, but “it’s basically a thin cloth...there is no consideration if you are a smaller or larger adult because apparently [the company] believes ‘one size fits all.’ I have seen large gaps around the nose and chin of countless employees.”
But the fit of the mask is only part of the problem. “Our masks stay on from the moment we get out of our car to the moment we get back into it after our shift,” which means six, eight, or ten hours outdoors in a city that averages 91 degrees and 60% afternoon humidity in August.
To make matters worse, the company forbids employees to remove their masks, even to drink water. Instead, they must go “backstage” (employee-only areas) to drink. Since that’s only possible during breaks, some employees go long stretches without water. That’s because if an employee is seen without their mask for any reason, it’s grounds for termination.
It appears the company thinks that, if guests see employees without masks, they’ll be emboldened not to wear them either. After all, as one park’s union shop steward put it: “The majority of our paycheck comes from stupid people.” Another employee added, “We’re not being paid to enforce the rules.”
We’ve all seen stories of shoppers loudly objecting to wearing masks or social distancing at an ice cream shop or Costco or Trader Joe’s. The stakes, and the stress, are far higher at a world-class entertainment destination with soaring ticket prices. Some families may only visit once in their lives. For super-fans of Harry Potter or Star Wars, the chance to see their favorite fictional world brought to life adds even more pressure to the trip.
So theme park employees may face a choice between being yelled at or allowing their workplace health and safety rules to be broken. One park union officer worries that, since their company values guest service, safety protocols might be sacrificed to make the guests happy.
For the Orlando employee, that’s already happening. At their park, hand sanitizer is mandatory before getting on a ride; it’s administered by an employee. “Guests have thrown a tantrum about this because they don't like how it smells or how it feels and they take it out on [us]. We get cursed out...over a simple pump of what might save your life or the lives of those around you.”
Unions for the Southern California venues have taken note. The union officer told me, “We feel that [our park] should employ personnel specifically instructed to conduct enforcement,” similar to the extra security brought in for Halloween events.
When the West Coast parks do re-open -- if there’s no major breakthrough to fight the virus -- their employees may be asked to follow strict health guidelines, enforce those guidelines to guests, and put their own health at risk...all while trying to provide a memorable, joyous experience for stressed-out guests surrounded by masked faces. The Orlando experiment has been running for just over a month now. Can it continue?
The Orlando employee shared a final thought for visitors considering a trip to their park: “If the public wants to help us and our families stay alive, stay home.”
Jason Ginsburg worked at Universal Studios Hollywood as a VIP studio guide, show host, and character performer. He runs the Twitter account @FakeThemePark.