As prices rise and attendance lags, Walt Disney World axes Orlando performers

click to enlarge Disney CEO Bob Iger with a Disney employee in costume - Photo via Wikimedia
Photo via Wikimedia
Disney CEO Bob Iger with a Disney employee in costume
In what has become an annual tradition ahead of the end of the financial year at Walt Disney World, the resort recently saw a wave of layoffs and cutbacks. And, as usual, the reductions have been met with outrage by Disney fans, who turn to online petitions and similar campaigns to show their disapproval. Though again, as usual, none of the anger seems to matter to Disney leadership that is dead-set on achieving year-over-year profit increases.

This year, the cuts are hitting live entertainment hard, with Animal Kingdom’s Burudika band in Africa, the Muppets show in Magic Kingdom’s Liberty Square, Magic Kingdom’s Royal Majesty Makers, and the Coco puppet and Folklórico dancers in Epcot all completely cut. Epcot’s JAMMitors and Taiko Drummers are both moving from performing seven days a week to five days a week.
While some of these offerings are newer, like the Coco show and the Muppets show, others, like Burudika, have called the parks home for a decade or longer. This might be part of the reasoning behind these latest budget cuts. Much like Epcot’s former Off Kilter, Afropop band Burudika is an actual band, known officially as Wassalou. They’re the only Afropop band of their type in Florida and one of the best known in the nation. Their decade-long stay at Disney’s Animal Kingdom likely included pay increases over the years, which may have made them a target for Disney.

In recent years, Disney has shifted from hiring Equity actors and other outsourced entertainment to hiring much cheaper non-union, inexperienced performers. This shift saw substantial cutbacks to the Equity-represented Citizens of Hollywood performers in Disney’s Hollywood Studios back in 2016. Another Equity represented show full shut down last year when Captain Jack's Pirate Tutorial was eliminated from the Magic Kingdom, after a 12-year run.

click to enlarge Rafiki's Planet Watch at Disney's Animal Kingdom - Image via Disney
Image via Disney
Rafiki's Planet Watch at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Over at Animal Kingdom – which is now the third-most-attended in the nation and second-most-attended in Florida – saw Equity cuts of its own last year, with the dancers let go from the Rivers of Light nighttime show. Last year also saw an entire section of the park, Rafiki’s Planet Watch, shifting to seasonal operations, with many of the smaller attractions therein being removed. The area now serves as a temporary Lion King-branded attraction.

In recent years, the Magic Kingdom, the world’s most-attended theme park, has seen three live entertainment shows and a nighttime parade cut with no replacements yet to be announced for any of them. Across the resort, Disney has also begun replacing photographers at character meet-and-greets with AI operated automated cameras. At last month’s D23 Expo, Disney announced a new AI-based vacation planning tool that looks to be replicating, or replacing, many of the current services offered by Guest Services.

All of this is happening while ticket prices continue to skyrocket. In the last decade, the price for a one-day, one-park ticket has jumped from $79 to $159 (on the most popular days). If ticket prices were tied to inflation, the $79 price in 2009 would cost $94 today.
click to enlarge As prices rise and attendance lags, Walt Disney World axes Orlando performers
Screenshot via Kaylin Hunter/YouTubeYouTube
On a recent podcast episode discussing Burudika leaving the Animal Kingdom, podcaster and well-known fan of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Dave McBride, expressed his frustration with Disney leadership.

"The creativity and all that is gone and in its place is a leadership that cares about its shareholders, and that’s about it.," said McBride. "There comes a point in time I think ... where you just kind of get tired of paying more money every year and getting things taken away every year."

McBride doesn’t seem to be alone in his sentiment. Despite opening the billion-dollar new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, that park saw some of the lowest crowds in recent memory. Surprisingly low attendance has also noticeable at Walt Disney World where throughout the summer Disney slashed hotel room rates by up to 40% and offered free dining for many guests staying on-site. The resort was hoping that unlike Disneyland, where the opening of Star Wars seemed to actually discourage guests from visiting, that numbers would improve once the new land opened at Hollywood Studios, but so far that hasn’t happened.

Len Testa of Touring Plans, a private company that tracks wait times and guest satisfaction at theme parks, has noted guests surveyed by the company rank the new Millennium Falcon ride below multiple attractions at the park, including the Frozen sing-a-long, the Chewbacca meet-and-greet, and the extremely dated Indiana Jones stunt show. In fact, the new ride doesn’t even crack the top ten in the park despite the park having less than two dozens attractions. Even the Star Tours simulator ride from the late 1980s ranks higher than the cutting-edge Millennium Falcon ride.

According to Testa, "there's no age group that puts Millenium Falcon: Smugglers Run in its Top 5." This lack of popularity with the new Star Wars land and, so far, its only attraction (a second ride is scheduled to open in a few months) has caused lines and hotel occupancy across the resort to be lower than many expected.
click to enlarge The new Reflections: A Disney Lakeside Resort DVC resort that will be located where River Country was. - Image via Disney Parks Blog
Image via Disney Parks Blog
The new Reflections: A Disney Lakeside Resort DVC resort that will be located where River Country was.
While cuts to employees have become a sort of annual tradition at Disney World that would make Jack Welch proud, the resort is frantically spending money ahead of the 50th Anniversary in 2021, and Universal Orlando’s new theme park opening not long after that.

Beyond the billion-dollar Star Wars land at Hollywood Studios, the resort has two hotels under construction with an enormous expansion of a third, a brand-new urban aerial gondola transit system, and an overhaul to Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland where a new TRON roller coaster is under construction and where a new entrance sign was recently installed. 
click to enlarge As prices rise and attendance lags, Walt Disney World axes Orlando performers
Image via Disney D23
Epcot’s massive multi-year overhaul is filling headlines and has many fans excited. 

But it is still unclear if any of these updates will be enough to keep guests returning the resort where prices continue to climb while the singular focus of new investments seems to be on creating franchise driven experiences that encourage up-charge activities and merchandise sales.

The new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge currently has three times more up-charge activities as actual rides within the land with the most expensive up-charge, a Build-A-Bear style workshop where guests can build their own lightsabers, allows only two guests per reservation despite costing $199.99. Early reviews of the land, which according to insiders saw drastic cuts in entertainment and attractions prior to its opening, were mediocre at best which didn’t help the already low attendance.

Some fans pointed to last year's move that merged the Parks and Resorts division at Disney with the company's consumer products division as a sign that company leadership viewed the parks as nothing more than a glorified mall. This year's D23 Expo, where Disney used the highly anticipated Parks and Resorts panel to announce a new partnership with Target stores, didn't help change many people's opinion.

Pete Werner, the co-owner of Dreams Unlimited Travel, one of the oldest and best known Disney vacation planning companies that is so successful it even has its own welcome center near Port Canaveral, recently shared his thoughts on what is happening at Disney World. Towards the end of an episode on his weekly DIS Unplugged show, Werner got unusually quiet, then in a serious tone rarely seen on the popular Orlando tourism show began explaining what he has been seeing recently at Disney World.

“I’ve been noticing this more and more lately and every time there is a price increase, every time there is what we would term a ‘money-grab’ by Disney, the question gets asked: ‘At what point is it just going to be too much?’ And this has been an interesting summer," Werner said. "I have been, I’ve been doing this for 22 years and I’ve been selling Disney travel through Dreams Unlimited Travel for 20. And I will tell you something’s up. Something is up. Now I cannot say definitively if we have reached that tipping point but there are things that are happening that are unusual." 

That lower than expected attendance at Galaxy’s Edge, and what Werner called shortsightedness, is likely part of the reason behind the layoffs hitting Disney World leadership. In recent weeks multiple high-level executives and salaried managers at Walt Disney World have been laid off in what is likely the largest non-guest related position layoffs since more than 145 were let go in 2017.

The company never disclosed how many of those 145 layoffs were located in Florida, with no Florida WARN notice, which are required when a company has significant layoffs, being posted by Disney throughout 2017 or 2018. In fact, Disney hasn’t posted a single WARN notice, which the state uses to assist dislocated workers, in the past six years. It's likely least some of the recent layoffs have come via forced resignations, though again Disney has yet to share specific numbers regarding the layoffs and forced resignations, or even acknowledge they’ve taken place.

One executive who has been spared from all of the cost-cutting and layoffs is Disney CEO, Bob Iger. Instead, he received a pay increase of 80% last year. His $65.7 million income looks even more questionable as the company lets go of $17 per hour performers and $12 per hour photographers while discounting rooms in what used to be one of the busiest times of the years. Iger's pay, which is 1,424 times the median Disney employee's, received attention earlier this year 
click to enlarge Abigail Disney - Photo cred:
Photo cred:
Abigail Disney
when Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of Roy Disney, Walt's brother and co-founder of the company, took to social media calling it "insane" while imploring the company, which the Disney family no longer controls, to increase pay for its lower-level workers.

In discussing this summer's lower than expected crowds at Disneyland, Iger, who will retire at the end of 2021, blamed prices at non-Disney hotels in the Anaheim area for contributing to the drop in attendance though its unclear if he will use the same excuse for Walt Disney World, where a 2-bedroom suite at some Disney hotels can cost more than $3,500 per night.

It’s also uncertain what, if any, entertainment will be left in the parks by the time Iger retires.

Burudika’s last performance at Disney’s Animal Kingdom will be October 13 while Magic Kingdom’s “The Muppets Present…Great Moments in American History” and the Royal Majesty Makers will both see their final performances on October 5.

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