‘It’s Kind of Like You’re in an Alternate Reality’

Photo: Walt Disney World Resort via Getty Images

Despite Florida becoming one of COVID-19’s new hot spots, Disney has decided to reopen its flagship theme park in Orlando, as you may have seen from the very haunted video it released to promote it. With over 4,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, over 300,000 cases, and approximately 1 in 100 residents infected statewide, some Disney employees have expressed concern about their safety and are demanding regular testing for employees, which the company has not provided so far. Still, many employees feel that they have no choice but to go back to work in the middle of a global pandemic and economic crisis. The Cut spoke to Kate,* a 31-year-old Disney World employee who works on attractions at Animal Kingdom, about what the mood is like in the new dystopian Disney World.

*Name has been changed to preserve anonymity.

I have stayed mostly isolated through the pandemic, but Florida took a long time to shut things down. And when we first reopened I thought it was far too soon, especially with bars and restaurants. I would drive by and places would be packed. Florida is just a very weird state.

When I got asked to come back to work in early June, cases weren’t spiking as high. But I live in a tiny apartment with my boyfriend who has lung issues. He works at Disney, too, but he’s still on furlough. We are both trying to be extra cautious. I keep my mask on all day and shower as soon as I get in the door before we touch each other. If I knew I was infected, I’d probably go stay at a motel. It’s just hard now when numbers are spiking so high in the state. I personally try to take every precaution I can, but I know that not everyone is as careful.

You have people who are like, “My rights!” That was one of the things I was most nervous about, that the guests were going to be really angry about having to wear a mask and throwing fits about it. It’s a rule that every single guest over 2 has to wear a mask, and most people have been pretty good about it. I’ve been surprised.

The first day back, everybody has to go through a new training, where they go over the new procedures. They give you special masks, and also a face shield to wear if you’re going to be within three feet of anybody. We also got issued a thermometer and safety goggles. And now there’s a health questionnaire you’re supposed to answer every day when you come in, and then they take your temperature again before you go into the park.

My first day back was bittersweet. My favorite thing to do used to be to watch people’s reactions during the firework shows because you see this mix of people from all backgrounds, all together in awe and happy in one place. But now the park has a limited capacity — it’s about 25 percent — so it’s sort of an eerie feeling. It was great to see the little kids especially, because they’re so happy, but you used to be able to hug them, and that’s part of the Disney magic. Smiling is also such a big part of Disney. Now you’re just like … “Hi.” There’s no hugging at all, no touching. It’s a little bit sad. It’s kind of apocalyptic. It’s kind of like you’re in an alternate reality. You’re happy to see a sign of normalcy, but you’re also nervous.

They’ve been doing unique things to help keep the magic. Obviously meet and greets are a really special thing for a lot of the kids, so they’re trying to come up with alternative ways that are safe for them, like having the princesses ride around on a horse and carriage and wave as they go around the streets. The kids are so excited to be able to see their favorite characters, but it’s really hard for the little ones because they just don’t understand; they try to reach out and touch and you’re like, “No, no, no.”

We do have to make sure people stay distanced. I have to constantly tell people to put on their masks, like after they are finished drinking and eating, or if the kids take their masks down. There are several older people who have come back to work. But I know from our staff Facebook group that there are some who have chosen not to come back because they’re concerned. And other people say they don’t think the park should be open because of the rising numbers in Florida, but they’re also like, “Well, it’s work.” I have mixed feelings about reopening. Safety should always be the No. 1 priority. But I also think if every restaurant or bar was being as safe as Disney is, things would be better. Given all the precautions it has in place, I feel safer at Disney than I would going out to a restaurant. But a lot of what I’m hearing is frustration with [unemployment pay] and obviously concerns about the money running out and then not being able to have a job.

I don’t make very much to begin with, and I have to work to live. If $600 a week federal unemployment is coming in, that’s great, but we don’t know if that’s coming back after July 31, and in that case I’d only be making $162 a week on unemployment. I have to pay my bills. I would love to be able to stay at home and not put myself at risk. It’s kind of messed up that I make more on unemployment right now than I do working full time, and I have to be out suffering in the heat in a mask and a face shield. It shouldn’t be this way.

I think this has shed a light on how messed up the system is. Especially now that people who normally would not have experienced the unemployment system are experiencing it and how faulty it is. People I know still haven’t gotten their money, and it’s been months. I hope that this will help people realize that a change needs to happen, because a lot of people are like, Oh, people [who take unemployment] just don’t want to work. And it’s like, no, sometimes people fall on hard times, and now they’re experiencing how messed up the system is and having to deal with it. We don’t have a lot of choice in the matter.

‘It’s Kind of Like You’re in an Alternate Reality’