If I were to conduct a Family Feud-style survey among members of Orlando's performing artists ranking their worst day ever, many moments from 2020 might appear in the Top 10, but one date in particular would doubtless dominate the list: Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, which will forever be known as the day that Disney Entertainment died.
What began on Tuesday evening as a trickle of tragic announcements turned overnight into a deluge, and all day Wednesday my social media feeds were filled with the devastating news that Walt Disney World was laying off the vast majority of its union entertainers. The complete casts and crews of countless long-running guest favorites – from the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue and Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular to Festival of the Lion King and Finding Nemo: The Musical – received notices of separation, and will lose their healthcare and other benefits after their jobs expire on New Year's Eve.
In total, all but 60 of the 780 members of Actors Equity who worked at Walt Disney World will now be unemployed. A mere decimation (meaning one in 10) would have been more merciful than this 92% termination rate among Jedi instructors, Monster comedians, streetmosphere Citizens and Green Army sergeants, not to mention stage managers, musicians and more. Of course, these 720 laid-off union members are a drop in the ocean of 17,740 cast members Walt Disney World will lay off before the end of the year. But the institutional knowledge that will depart with these artists – some of whom spent 20 or more years with the same show – will disproportionately decrease Disney's ability to rekindle its magic once the pandemic finally passes.
Currently, Savi's Workshop in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge – where guests pay $200 for an actor-led lightsaber-building ceremony – and the Frozen Sing-Along remain the only Equity venues that have returned to operation. The rest of Disney's pixie-dusted stages will remain mothballed for the foreseeable future, despite steadily increasing crowds at the theme parks. And the full-time artists who brought them to life will be left deciding whether to seek new careers in a city whose economic recovery is predicted to lag behind the rest of the nation, or to start an exodus of talent that could permanently cripple Central Florida's cultural life.
This mass firing would be infuriating enough if nobody were truly at fault, but there appears to be plenty of blame to go around. Disney likes to point fingers at California's government, which is keeping the Disneyland Resort's rides closed; part of Anaheim's California Adventure will soon reopen for dining and shopping only, months after its competitors began doing so. But Mickey could have saved some of his billions in profits for a rainy day, instead of spending Scrooge McDuck-style vaults of cash on stock buybacks and executive salaries (which were fully restored after a brief publicity-seeking pay cut). It's also worth noting that employees at Disneyland Paris, which recently re-closed for several months, don't have to struggle with the state to receive unemployment benefits or healthcare.
The real elephant in the room is Universal Orlando, which successfully reopened most of its entertainment offerings and has even added new productions. Although its performers are not union members, the real difference is that Universal's actors are allowed (in fact, required) to wear face coverings on stage, whereas Disney mandates its characters appear unmasked or not at all. While some blame WDW's cutbacks on guests refusing to comply with mask mandates, I personally blame those barefaced Princesses.
During World War II, Disney produced hygiene propaganda and Mickey Mouse gas masks to help make kids more comfortable with life-saving measures. It's a shame Disney isn't doing its civic duty today by leveraging its beloved intellectual properties to model proper behavior.
All of this is enough to make you crave a stiff cocktail, like a tall double whiskey ginger from the bar at the Parliament House. But on the exact same Wednesday, confirmation came that the LGBTQ+ landmark would permanently close at its current location after Sunday night, Nov. 1, ending 45 years as Central Florida's premier gay nightclub.
I especially loved the P-House for its Footlight Theatre, where artists including Michael Wanzie, David Lee and Ginger Minj presented theater that appealed to all orientations. The sprawling resort has seemingly been in financial straits ever since a planned timeshare development went south a decade ago, and the property was sold in foreclosure last February. Owners Don and Susan Granatstein say they plan to relocate, sans the hotel operations, but it's hard to imagine any downtown club being animated with the same Saturnalian spirit as the anything-goes empire where Miss P and Miss Sammy (RIP) once ruled.
There's only two things to do in the face of this double gut-punch. First, donate to organizations like Greater Orlando Performing Relief (gopar.org), Cast Member Pantry (casttmemberpantry.com) and Second Harvest Food Bank (feedhopenow.org). Second, support local live theater in whatever form you feel comfortable attending.
For example, last weekend Fringe critics' favorite Bruce Costella (facebook.com/bctheatricals) turned his front lawn into a socially distanced open-air auditorium, complete with contact-free concessions and pre-assigned patches of grass. Beneath the stars, he lifted my spirits with his charming Spooky and Gay picnic cabaret of storytelling, songs and cryptid-curious stand-up.
If every big company were as resourceful as Costella, the show really could go on.