How Disney execs and COVID-19 wrecked the lives of middle-class Disney World workers

The Washington Post has an excellent new multimedia exploration of the impact of COVID-19 layoffs on longtime employees at Florida's Walt Disney World park. Mixing large-scale headline news—Disney laying off 28,000 cast members in September, and 4,000 more the day before Thanksgiving, while executives get raises—with carefully observed personal details, author Greg Jaffe paints a deeply humanizing and empathetic picture of the Everyday Floridians whose lives have been utterly shattered by these economic changes. These are normal people who were living the epitome of the American dream, where hardwork pays off and elevates your status over time—until it all falls away more abruptly than you could ever plan for.

Flaviana wasn't angry at Disney. She was too scared for her girls and herself to be anything other than worried. "I wish I could be at work," she typed.

Her job waiting tables at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort had sustained her through the painful end of her marriage and the struggles of being a single parent to two teenage girls, one of whom is autistic and struggles with basic motor skills and speaking. Throughout the summer and fall as lawmakers were fighting over an economic relief bill and the number of coronavirus cases was climbing, Flaviana was scouring the Disney fan blogs for glimmers of hope that the tourists might be returning. But the once famously long lines at Disney World remained short even as Orlando's free food lines, packed with laid-off hotel and theme park workers, grew longer. All the while Flaviana's unemployment checks shrank from more than $800 a week in July to $247 a week in October, which didn't even cover her rent.

The hardest parts for Flaviana were accepting the reality that her Disney job was gone; that the modest middle-class life that she had built was no longer sustainable; that she wouldn't be able to provide Victoria, a bright and imaginative teenager whose autism made everyday tasks difficult, with the classes and therapists that enabled her to learn and share her thoughts and feelings.


Desiree, 45, had been working at Disney's Polynesian resort since she was 16. Her three decades of service landed her near the middle of Page 1. Flaviana's name was on the bottom of Page 6.

Desiree's mother had worked at the Polynesian, and Desiree had met her husband, who was also a Disney server, at the resort. At first, the layoff hurt her pride. "It makes you feel like you don't matter," she said.

As the weeks passed, her worry shifted to her bills. Her husband had been called back to work but was only earning about half of what he made during normal times. A good Disney server at a popular restaurant could earn $50,000 to $75,000 a year. Desiree had landed a seasonal job at Bath & Body Works, but it only paid $11 an hour. She picked up a bit more money gardening. But it wasn't covering her expenses.

Days earlier, she and her husband had drained their savings account to pay the mortgage on the home they had purchased in 2018. Banks were letting customers skip payments, but Desiree was still anxious about falling behind and losing the house.

It's a long piece, with embedded videos that bring you inside the stressful lives of the human beings that were sacrificed to feed the Mighty Mouse Gods. But it's worth carving out some time for.

"I Didn't Make It" [Greg Jaffe, Drea Cornejo, and Eve Edelheit / Washington Post]

Image: Michael Gray/Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)