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Bob Iger steps up, Disney workers get furloughed, and more coronavirus updates

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Apr 14, 2020

Welcome to Theme Park News! The rides may remain closed, but there's plenty happening on this side of the gates. As Disney employees battle forthcoming furloughs and we wait indoors, patiently dreaming of returning to the most magical place on earth, I can't help but drift off to the reason why I — and so many others — crave sprinting straight toward the land of Mickey waffles and high-flying fun the second this pandemic ends.

In the end, Disney Parks themselves are reassurance that everything is okay. The timeless Main Street, U.S.A. architecture, the decades-old robotics lining a simplistic log flume that still thrills, the neo-futurist dreams of idealistic space travel embedded into a Tomorrowland that can require an airplane, monorail, and ride-share app to reach — being able to experience it all confirms that we're safe, we're okay, we're home. And as they remain closed, it's a jarring signal toward the opposite.

Sometimes the week's updates read more like a stroll through Fantasyland; others feel more like being under siege in the battle scene of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. But never forget: Both add up as equal parts of the adventure. We just may be embarking on the latest one with more protective gear than we previously had anticipated.

And with that, here's this week's news: CEO confusion, furlough updates, and much, much more:

NO, BOB IGER IS NOT SNATCHING BACK HIS THRONE

For anyone who thought The Walt Disney Company and its $69.5 billion revenue last year was impervious to a virus, Sunday’s New York Times interview with CEO-turned-Executive Chairman Bob Iger shows just how particularly susceptible the company was in the wake of a pandemic. Though diversified across theme parks, cruise lines, vacation destinations, film, television, and sports, when all leisure activities — sports, travel, and cinema included — grind to a halt, so has Disney's business. Theme parks and cruises, ESPN, and movies are the company's three biggest divisions, and all three have been utterly hamstrung by the virus.

"No big media company is more dependent on its customers’ social and physical proximity than Disney, with its theme parks and cruise lines," the Times story reads. "Few have been hit harder by the pandemic."

Although the story does a good job of really exploring how the coronavirus has impacted nearly every facet of Disney's core business, one paragraph overshadowed the rest.

"And now, Mr. Iger has effectively returned to running the company," the story reads. "After a few weeks of letting Mr. Chapek take charge, Mr. Iger smoothly reasserted control ..."

Ah yes, the phrase heard — and misinterpreted — ‘round the Disney World. Many readers thought this meant Iger had pulled back the CEO reins merely six or so weeks after they were publicly handed to Bob Chapek. The thing is, Iger never planned to fade into the sunset, buoyed by his success and a newfound lack of 4 a.m. alarms. The plan — or at least until December 31, 2021, when his contract officially ends — was always for Iger to remain in place to focus on creative endeavors while “working closely with [Chapek] over the next 22 months as he assumes this new role.”

So maybe take this with a grain of salt. Despite being somewhat framed as a hostile takeover vis-a-vis video web conferencing, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Iger is taking a leadership role in these times, possibly more than he would have planned for. Not only are many of the creative projects he planned to pursue on pause for the moment, but he himself confirmed to the Times that “A crisis of this magnitude, and its impact on Disney, would necessarily result in my actively helping Bob [Chapek] and the company contend with it.”

So, no, Iger isn’t becoming the company’s perma-CEO or, at a minimum, its Jay Leno. A decade-and-a-half of leadership from the poised shoulders of a man who shaped each division into what it is now, purchased brands integral to its future growth, and even oversaw, as Maureen Dowd dubbed it, the “labyrinthine negotiations” in opening mainland China’s first massive Disney imprint, is an asset. It seemingly only makes sense that he, who was at the helm of Disney’s massive global success, would be the same one involved during a catastrophic worldwide decline.

Still, it’s interesting to be hearing so much from and about Iger — both in this robust Times piece that was seemingly heavily reported through those around him, and last week’s exclusive Q&A at Barron’s — when there’s nary a quote from current CEO Bob Chapek to be found. Perhaps it’s fitting that the very next morning, Disney staffers were greeted by a two-minute monologue from Chapek e-mailed out just before 8 a.m. Pacific on Monday, reassuring them of the difficulty and gravity of the current situation, proving two heads really are better than one.

Credit: Alex Menendez/Getty Images

THE FURLOUGH GAZETTE

It was, unfortunately, a bad week for theme park employees being hit with furloughs. Disney first announced furloughs would hit the Parks, Experiences and Consumer Products division of the company on April 2, which includes everything from theme park executives and Disney Cruise Line staffers to Walt Disney Imagineering. Late last week, further divisions of the company, including Pixar, Marvel, and Walt Disney Studios, were revealed to have also been hit with furloughs.

No figures have been released on how many of Disney’s estimated 223,000 employees will be temporarily out of work starting April 19, but it’s an ever-increasing number, particularly on the heels of the agreement between Walt Disney World and the Service Trades Council Union, which leaves about 43,000 union employees on furlough status as of April 19. (With many of the unionized working as housekeepers, lifeguards, bus drivers, and theme park characters, only .5 percent of union workers deemed essential will stay on board, according to the Orlando Sentinel.)

As Universal does its best to stave off full-time furloughs — part-time hourly employees will be furloughed beginning May 3 — almost all its full-time staff will be paid at 80 percent salary, and be asked to cut back on work, as announced last week.

Both Disney and Universal are doing a commendable job by retaining and covering cast members' benefits for up to a year — meaning staffers, no matter where they work across the company, will retain health insurance for themselves and their families, even while temporarily out of work — but the vast amount of Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort employees able to claim unemployment next week could inadvertently swell a system that is already somewhat underwater. The Orlando Sentinel is reporting that Florida citizens filed 225,755 initial unemployment claims, with a backlog of more than 560,000 claims statewide.

Credit: Jeff Gritchen/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

WHAT WILL IT BE LIKE WHEN WE GO BACK?

As we desperately try to quell those sweet memories and corn dog cravings and avoid our real work by staying up until midnight wondering if we should impulse-buy a RIP Club Cool T-shirt — no? Just me? — it’s the question on everyone’s minds: What will these parks look like when we return? As I look into the crystal ball a la Madame Leota and tell tales of what the future holds, it’s looking like temperature checks, social distancing measures, and, well, some lowered expectations.

Iger went on the record with Barron’s last week to discuss how he doesn’t anticipate a return to business as usual and even floated the possibility of temperature checks at the gate. It may seem unfathomable now that something like that could become part of a process where a staffer sweetly calls you “princess” as you scan your theme park ticket or makes a dad joke while digging through your diaper bag, but I commend the company for taking safety seriously. After all, Disney Parks are a place where we tend to go to forget our fears, not enhance them — and with the executive chairman citing “more scrutiny, more restrictions," anything that can get us back to that happy place is worthwhile.

Think of it this way: The addition of metal detectors in 2015 may have felt like a jarring juxtaposition to the impending magic, but things would feel significantly more dangerous these days without them.

With Iger citing that they're studying China's returns to normalcy, it seems the best indicator at this time will be to follow what happens at Shanghai Disneyland when it fully reopens. Still, there’s a disconnect — with Shanghai Disneyland Hotel and its Disneytown mall utilizing government-supported health QR codes in conjunction with masks and temperature screenings for current visitors, it’s unlikely our solution will look identical.

It’s worth noting that the parks themselves could function differently, too. Len Testa, the founder of Touring Plans and co-author of The Unofficial Guides to Disneyland and Walt Disney World, went into further detail about how his team is anticipating changes in this week’s episode of his podcast, the Disney Dish, including the possibility of lowered capacity within the parks and social distancing within theme park attraction vehicles themselves.

Even when the parks do welcome guests, masks or not, it’s unlikely everything will proceed as planned. With aforementioned furloughs having hit Walt Disney Imagineering, the thinly veiled verbiage of employees' social media accounts last week hinted at projects being temporarily put on pause. It wouldn't be shocking, then, given the financial climate, if some forthcoming expansions and announced changes will be shifted and canceled.

Either way, when they're open, we'll be ready. If there was a time to appreciate what's already in the park more than ever, it's now.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

Consider your weekend plans intact! This Thursday’s massive #DisneyFamilySingalong will include Demi Lovato and Michael Bublé dueting on “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes," Ariana Grande singing Hercules’ “I Won’t Say I’m in Love," and actors like Auli’i Cravalho, Josh Gad, and Luke Evans reprising their cinematic performances of Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” and “Gaston” from Beauty and the Beast.

But none of that matters because they’re reuniting THE CAST OF HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL! Gabriella and Troy and Sharpay and Ryan and the entire gang! We’re all in this together, along with a very special appearance from Zac Efron (!!!).

And if that weren't enough, this Friday, the Celebrating 25 Magical Years of Disney on Broadway concert will stream at 7 p.m. Eastern. Recorded back in November at the New Amsterdam Theatre with guest stars including Whoopi Goldberg, Christian Borle, and Gavin Creel, the performance — which raised over half a million dollars — is being rebroadcast to raise funds for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS’ COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund. (Finally, something to look forward to!)

LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!

- A beautiful profile of one of WDW’s talented cast members, who is determined to brighten would-be guests’ day through the internet.

- The exact kind of chaos I want while the parks remain closed, TBH.

- With nowhere to go and nothing worth buying, this cherry-picked list of Disney Outlet highlights is a godsend for anyone missing World of Disney’s once-weirdest offerings.

- It appears Disney California Adventure's Avengers Campus is officially delayed.

- This week in Disney-provided distractions brought the Dapper Dans singing their barbershop best from home and a heartwarming story about creating Easter magic while the parks remain closed.

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