The staff who said, 'Bah humbug'

"Tis the season to be jolly." Unless, of course, you happen to work for the Mouse.

If you're headed over to Lake Buena Vista for a bit of holiday cheer, don't expect to encounter the usual assortment of super-happy, fun, productive Disney World employees you may have known in the past. This year, the mood among WDW cast members can best be described as somber. Bordering on suicidal.

Why? Weeks of watching as friends and colleagues got laid off and/or had their hours dramatically reduced have taken a toll on cast-member morale. Not to mention the very real fear that their positions may disappear with the next wave of job cuts.

The latest firings have included some of Disney's most senior staff members.

WDW veterans were shocked earlier this month when several longtime Florida-based Imagineers, some of whom had been working for the company since the resort opened back in October 1971, were suddenly let go.

This shock was doubled last week when Timur Galen, the Imagineer who had directed design and construction of Disney's California Adventure theme park, was unexpectedly given the old holiday heave ho-ho-ho. According to Mouse House insiders, Galen's dismissal was particularly harsh -- even by Disney standards. It was harsh both for its unfortunate pre-Christmas timing, as well as the fact that Galen was already moving his family to Asia, where he was supposed to take charge of construction and design of Hong Kong Disneyland.

So, if this is how the Mouse chooses to treat its most senior and loyal employees (Happy Holidays! Now get out!), is it any wonder that recent visitors to Disney World have noticed an obvious drop-off in customer service? After all, what's the point of going that extra mile to make a guest happy today if you're going to be unemployed tomorrow?

This change in employee attitude came across loud and clear to Winnie P. earlier this month. She visited WDW on Dec. 5 -- the 100th anniversary of Walt Disney's birth -- to do a little shopping. What she discovered during her visit to Disney/MGM Studios that morning surprised the hell out of her.

"Here I was, inside the park that's supposed to serve as the centerpiece of the whole '100 Years of Magic' celebration. And I'm looking to spend $200 on this limited-edition Disney Classic Collections piece. Money that the Mouse -- I'm sure -- would be happy to have these days. Only I can't get anyone to help me," says Winnie. "The staff in the shop behaved like my every request was this incredible bother."

OK. I know what you're thinking. Winnie P. is one of those cranky tourists who always complains about everything. Wrong. Winnie P. is a local girl who has friends who work at the parks. She knows how Mickey's cast members are supposed to behave. Which is why she was so startled by the very un-Disney-like treatment she received at MGM's Art of Animation gallery.

"Any other time that I've visited this shop, the staff has been great," Winnie explains. "If they don't have a piece in stock, they're immediately on the phone, calling all over the property to see if another WDW shop might have what I'm looking for. Great, great service. This time, nothing."

So, since the Art of Animation staff evidently wasn't willing to do the legwork for her anymore, Winnie P. did it herself. She spent Walt's birthday visiting stores all around the resort, seeking that elusive statue. What she encountered appalled her.

"Every shop I went into, the staff was the same," Winnie says. "All that happy, Disney 'what-can-I-do-for-you?' spirit had been snuffed out of the cast members. They talked openly in front of me about how their hours had been cut or the number of cast members who had been laid off. It got to be real depressing."

That's why -- after initially feeling angry that no one seemed willing to help her -- Winnie P. began feeling sorry for the staff. "Based on what my friends have told me over the years, I know that working for the Mouse can sometimes be a grind," she says. But she has never seen the likes of such a "bunch of depressed people who couldn't smile or even pick up a phone to help me. Who openly complained about how they were being treated. Ã? What is Disney doing to their cast members to make them act this way?"

Try months of cut-backs and last-minute schedule changes. So, please, try to be understanding if those WDW cast members who wait on you this holiday season seem kind of preoccupied. For it's not visions of sugar plums that are dancing in their heads; it's the very real fear of pink slips that may await them as soon as the holiday crowds go home.

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