Orlando's laid-off theme park workers are making magic for the holidays

Orlando's laid-off theme park workers are making magic for the holidays
Hayley Kaye Creations

Since March, Disney has laid off or furloughed thousands of creatives, and many have turned to side hustles to make ends meet. This holiday, you can support their endeavors by shopping from the Ear for Each Other group on Facebook, which showcases items made by former Disney employees.

The COVID-19 pandemic has roiled Orlando's workforce. While the April quarantine and long-standing safety measures kept thousands safe from the illness, they also meant thousands of jobs lost. No doubt, the hardest-hit sector of our local economy are theme park and hospitality employees. Walt Disney World alone has seen more than 50,000 furloughs and lay-offs of part-time, seasonal, full-time and union employees.

Orlando's plethora of entertainers, performers, artists, and hospitality professionals are our "magic makers." They're what keep this city vibrant and churning with creative energy, and many of Orlando's most influential artisans and businesses started their careers with the Mouse.

But with the shuttering of the theme parks and hotels in March, and subsequent limited operations still ongoing with limited tourism due to closed borders, these employees have a lot of creative energy and nowhere to spend it.

Or, so we thought.

Enter "Ear for Each Other," a Facebook group founded by Maxine Pollakis, a 22-year Disney cast member who started the group with three others – two laid off, one furloughed, one still employed. The group aims to give furloughed and laid-off Disney cast members (CMs) a place to promote and market their side hustles, whether they're creative or practical, to an audience seeking to support them.

"When the group was created," says Pollakis, "the federal aid for Floridians was ending, leaving [the CMs] to earn about $200 per week. I knew so many were struggling and wondered how I could help." Pollakis looked no further than her own social network, where she found CMs painting, baking bread, making candles and soaps, starting pressure-washing and auto detailing businesses, and more.

"We created a space where impacted CMs could showcase their creative work and share their services with the community. Our forum now includes more than 30,000 CMs and community members," says Pollakis. "Disney cast members are incredibly talented, and it's very common for artists to find ways to be creative, no matter the circumstances."

We reached out to the Ear for Each Other community to hear some stories of affected cast members, and received more than 100 responses. Chefs, woodworkers, bakers, watercolor artists, hand-letterers, costumers, graphic designers – we were humbled by the ingenuity, imagination and downright scrappiness displayed by these Orlandoans.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. These are the people that make Orlando one of the world's top tourist destinations, after all.

This season, consider checking off the gifts on your list by scrolling through Ear for Each Other and ordering from the CMs' Facebook pages, Etsy shops and Instagram feeds. On the group, there are dedicated "albums" for commonly requested items like holiday ornaments, masks and specific crafts. Here are some of our favorite stories. We couldn't fit all of them, but you can find photos from almost all of the makers we heard from, along with links to order, on orlandoweekly.com.

click to enlarge Orlando's laid-off theme park workers are making magic for the holidays
Magical Charcuterie

ALI SPINELLI / Magical Charcuterie Charcuterie boxes

"I grew up performing – singing and dancing, and I wanted to keep that part of my identity, so I went to a Disney audition on a whim," says Spinelli, who worked as a character performer for two and a half years before being laid off. Spinelli is a full-time student, and always loved cooking and baking. After learning about Ear for Each Other from her mom, Spinelli posted some pictures of charcuterie boards she had made for friends and family. "It blew up," she says, and now she delivers these gorgeous boards to the Disney resorts and small gatherings around town, and offers keto, gluten-free and vegetarian boxes as well. "I don't think I'll ever have another job that was so rewarding. There are so many creative people in Orlando, and no one should limit themselves because people want to hear from you and see how creative you are." Order by visiting magicalcharcuterie.com or follow Spinelli at @MagicalCharcuterie on Instagram.

DAN OTTE / Madz Woodworkz Custom cornhole boards

After being laid off from a job as an executive sales director for an education company, Dan Otte turned to valet parking in the interim. "A job in my field was just very hard to come by," he says. In December 2019, he started work as the valet captain at Disney's Polynesian Resort. "Everything was going well, and then one day they let us know that we wouldn't be working until further notice." Otte started woodworking in high school and made a few household items like headboards and kitchen tables as a hobby. Before posting his custom cornhole boards on Ear for Each Other, he wasn't sure how he'd make his bills, let alone give his kids gifts for Christmas. With his one post, he now has more than 50 orders for cornhole boards to be produced before Christmas, and has room for only 10 more orders. "This community has been so supportive," says Otte, "All we can do is pray and help our friends who need it." Order by visiting facebook.com/madzwoodworkz.

click to enlarge Orlando's laid-off theme park workers are making magic for the holidays
Busy Bee Crochet Plushies

EMILY URRESTA / Busy Bee Crochet Plushies

"Growing up, I was always told, 'Go into hospitality because people will always travel and go out to eat,'" says Emily Urresta, who is furloughed from her job as a coordinator at Wilderness Lodge. "It was job security – until it wasn't." She and her mom, a cook at Grand Floridian, both found themselves out of work. "I had seen these giant crochet bees on TikTok, and really wanted to make one, and that was the start of all this," says Urresta. The bee turned out great, so they started working on other crochet projects, posting their plushies on Ear for Each Other. Urresta's mom, Pilar, does the bulk of the crochet work and Emily takes on the marketing. Now, they produce gorgeous amigurumi-style crochet plushies, including Disney characters like Stitch, Tigger and the dancing hippos from Fantasia. "This has been a huge struggle, but when you see the end result, it's amazing." Order by visiting facebook.com/busybeecrochetplushies or follow Urresta at @BusyBeeCrochetPlushies on Instagram.

HAYLEY KAYE / Hayley Kaye Creations Inspirational paper goods

"I've always struggled with anxiety," says Hayley Kaye, who was furloughed from her job as a server at Morimoto Asia in March. "I was excited about the opportunity for some time off at first, but the anxiety and fear started to grow slowly as time went on," she says. "I started turning to crafting and painting and drawing to channel that energy." At the same time, Kaye was participating in a social media internship where she learned how to build an audience and a brand on Instagram. "I thought, why don't I try this for myself," says Kaye, who now has an audience of more than 2.5K followers on her Instagram feed, @IAmHayleyKaye, which focuses on mental health. Her inspirational journals, stickers, buttons and prints feature positive affirmations apropos in hard times. Order by visiting Hayley Kaye Creations on Etsy or follow Kaye at @IAmHayleyKaye on Instagram.

click to enlarge Orlando's laid-off theme park workers are making magic for the holidays
Hayley Kaye Creations

WENDY MAXWELL / WenMax Designs Upcycled handbags

With a master's degree in costume design, Wendy Maxwell created costumes for Mad Cow Theatre, Orlando REP and Theatre UCF while working for 12 years in Disney's costuming department. She is currently laid off. "About three years ago, I found an old vinyl Barbie box at Orange Tree Antiques," she says. "I made a bag out of it and loved how it looked, so I got another Barbie box. Then my friends started to ask for them." Maxwell loves breathing new life into vintage items, so now she sells her upcycled bags on her Etsy store. "We find ourselves in this really awful situation, but through Ear for Each Other, we can offer support and encouragement, which is amazing when it feels like you just had your legs kicked out from under you." Order by visiting WenMax Designs on Etsy.

click to enlarge Orlando's laid-off theme park workers are making magic for the holidays
Kacin's Studio

KACIN MERCER / Kacin's Studio Custom Pet Portraits

A former entertainment manager at Epcot, Kacin Mercer was furloughed in March and just got word that she'll be laid off in December. "I have a background in acrobatics, and love performing," she says, "but ever since I was a child, I had a real passion for painting." Mercer and her husband moved to Orlando from North Carolina to pursue their dreams – hers at Disney and his as a massage therapist. "When we found out that I was going to be furloughed, my husband, who has always been very supportive, encouraged me to start painting full time." She posted a few of her colorful pet portraits on the Ear for Each Other Facebook group and the response was immense. "I fully believe that being furloughed was an opening door rather than a closed one," says Mercer. "When you have all this creative energy, it's a sure bet you'll find somewhere to put it." Order by visiting kacinsstudio.com or follow Mercer at @KacinsStudio on Instagram.

Scroll to read more Holiday Guide articles
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.