On Tuesday, hours before the curtain would rise on the stunning trash fire of the first presidential debate, the Walt Disney Company sent a memo to its employees announcing that many of them—28,000, news reports would specify—would be out of a job in the next few days.
Those 28,000 layoffs would come from the Parks, Experiences, and Products division, read the memo. Around two-thirds would be part-time workers, some of whom were already furloughed after the coronavirus pandemic descended in March.
“We initially hoped that this situation would be short-lived, and that we would recover quickly and return to normal,” division chairman Josh D’Amaro wrote. “Seven months later, we find that has not been the case. And, as a result, today we are now forced to reduce the size of our team across executive, salaried, and hourly roles.”
But for many observers the layoffs are not surprising, as Disney’s theme parks—which accounted for 37% of the company’s total revenue last year—have been pummeled as the pandemic knocked out travel, tourism, large crowds, and events that involve yelling or screaming (e.g. roller coasters), snacking (with masks off), and close proximity to other people (standing in line, watching performances, taking pictures with a giant costumed mouse).
Despite these obvious hurdles, Disney plowed onwards, reopening parks in Shanghai, Hong Kong (which re-closed after a coronavirus spike, then re-reopened two months later), Tokyo, and Paris throughout the summer, as well as its flagship Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
And despite operating with capped capacities, park reopenings were fraught, with great skepticism from critics over public health and safety concerns. Chief among them was Abigail Disney herself, granddaughter of company cofounder Roy Disney and a notable critic of the entertainment conglomerate’s corporate practices, who weighed in on the layoffs over multiple posts on Twitter yesterday:
What did I tell you? The layoffs were always coming. Today Disney chose to layoff nearly 30% of their workforce on the same day as the first presidential debate. Hoping, I am sure, to have the news of this drowned out by the news of that. 1/
— Abigail Disney (@abigaildisney) September 30, 2020
“If Disney had spent more time in Gov Newsom’s office arguing for an extension of unemployment benefits and more rent subsidies instead of opening the parks prematurely and in a way that would risk their employees’ health, I ‘d be a lot more comfortable with the loyalty to which they lay claim,” Disney wrote in a scathing indictment of the company’s choices.
“If Disney had not spent down every penny of its cash on share buy-backs in 2019 (11.5 billion worth) perhaps there’d have been some dough on hand to ensure that even at a partial level they could continue to keep some of these workers on until things return to normal,” she added.
The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Poor choices aside, Disney isn’t alone in its financial pain. The company’s Orlando neighbors Universal and SeaWorld are feeling it, too. Despite reopening in June, Universal cut an undisclosed number of workers this summer and is extending the furloughs of 5,400 more, and SeaWorld recently cut 1,900 workers.