Earlier this week, we discovered the heartbreaking news that hundreds of Disney World’s union actors received layoff notices. These Cast Members, all of which belong to the professional actors’ union known as Actors’ Equity Association, represent the on-stage talent seen in shows like Festival of the Lion King, Finding Nemo the Musical, Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, and Beauty and the Beast — Live on Stage.
But what do these layoffs mean exactly for the future of these beloved shows? Let’s take a look at what we know so far.
What is Actors’ Equity?
The actors and singers you see in Disney World’s live stage productions are members of the Actors’ Equity Association, the professional stage actor and stage manager union. This is the same union that represents actors and stage managers on Broadway and at other professional theatres across the nation.
Keep in mind that not all of Disney World’s performers are represented by Actors’ Equity. The character performers you see in meet and greets, parades, and other shows with non-speaking roles are typically non-equity performers, though there can be some exceptions. In total, Disney had about 780 total union actors employed prior to the park closures. This is a relatively small portion of the tens of thousands of union Cast Members employed at Disney World.
Why are these equity actor layoffs happening now?
Back in April, Disney announced that they would furlough tens of thousands of their Cast Members, including equity actors. During the furlough, Disney continued to pay 100% of the Cast Members’ health and insurance benefits coverage. At the time, the chief negotiator commented that Actors’ Equity was, “proud to be able to reach agreement on our primary goals,” which included, “continued access to health care throughout the furlough.”
As Disney World prepared to reopen in July, there was a rather public back-and-forth dispute between Disney and Actors’ Equity regarding workplace safety, which eventually resulted in a memorandum of understanding between the two parties once Disney made testing for the virus more readily available to their Cast Members. This opened the door for equity actors to return to work, although since that happened there has been little development on the return of Disney’s stage shows, with a few small exceptions.
Several weeks after the agreement was reached, Disney announced that layoffs would be coming to 28,000 Cast Members across their Parks, Experiences, and Products division. These recent equity actor layoffs are part of that 28,000 total.
There is no reason to believe that the dispute between Disney and Equity and these layoffs are in any way related, and the real reason more than likely has to do with Disney’s health and safety protocols having a long-term impact on live entertainment offerings where crowds may form, which is also why other offerings such as fireworks and parades are temporarily suspended. Basically, if they can’t safely reopen the shows, Disney is facing potentially a LONG time of paying for these actors’ insurance waiting for them to come back to work.
How many performers and shows are being impacted?
In short, almost every live show is being impacted by the recent layoff of Disney World’s equity actors. Large-scale productions such as Festival of the Lion King and Finding Nemo the Musical are impacted, as well as small-scale site-specific shows, like the Citizens of Main Street, U.S.A., the Citizens of Hollywood, and the Green Army Men in Toy Story Land.
To give more perspective of how wide-reaching these layoffs are, out of the approximately 780 union actors that were previously employed at Disney World, only 60 remain.
Shows that do not seem to have been impacted at this time include Savi’s Workshop and For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration.
Click here to read more about the statement released by Actors’ Equity regarding Disney World’s layoffs.
What do these layoffs mean for the future of these shows?
Unfortunately, it may be some time before we see these shows return, and it’s possible that some of these shows may be permanently closed. Disney themselves recently reported that, “it’s impossible at this time to fully replace the incredible entertainment that existed throughout our parks before the pandemic,” and that, “Determining which shows can return and when is a complex process.”
Actors’ Equity noted in an official press release that “laid-off members maintain recall rights until the end of 2021.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that these shows could return by the end of 2021, but if they do, the impacted Cast Members could be asked to return to work. Recall rights don’t exactly give us a timeline for when we can expect the shows to return, but it does leave a door open for the laid-off performers to return to work. If/when Disney resumes shows, the actors many guests have grown to know and love in certain roles could be asked to return, but again, it’s not a guarantee.
When the layoffs were announced earlier this week, it was reported that some attractions laid off almost the entirety of their cast, indicating that there may be a more permanent closure in the works. These attractions, according to Orlando Sentinel, include Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, Beauty and the Beast — Live on Stage, and Jedi Training Academy. At this time, Disney has not announced plans for when these shows will return. Time will truly tell when — and if — each of these shows resume.
Planning a trip to Disney World in 2021?
If your Disney World vacations typically revolve around the sights and sounds of the live entertainment within the theme parks, you may have slim pickings for live shows going into 2021. With many of these layoffs taking effect in December, it stands to reason that most if not all of the impacted stage shows will not return in early 2021.
Beyond that, it’s difficult to say exactly when or how Disney World plans on bringing shows back. With other major theatrical institutions like Broadway remaining dark until late spring of 2021, we may not see large-scale productions return for several months, if not longer. Once it’s safe for these shows to return, it will be up to Disney to decide which shows to bring back, if any.
At this time, there is no evidence to suggest that all of these shows are shutting down for good, but unfortunately, we may be facing a future where some of these shows may not come back.
What are your options then for live entertainment in 2021? Disney World has introduced character cavalcades at each of the four parks, as well as more random encounters with characters throughout the day. You can also catch select acts like Voices of Liberty and the JAMMitors at EPCOT. It may be some time though before entertainment at Disney World is back to what it was before the closures.
As always, we will be keeping a watchful eye on Disney World to see if they announce the return of these shows, and as soon as they do, we will be sure to let you know. In the meantime, our hearts go out to all of the impacted Equity performers and Cast Members across the Disney World Resort, as well as the impacted Cast Members at the Disneyland Resort.
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