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Orlando's army of freelancers may be theme parks’ best hope to reopen quickly 

  • Photo courtesy SLICE
  • Melody Matheny

It’s been over a week since Walt Disney World furloughed the majority of its cast members, and on May 3 they’ll be joined on the unemployment rolls by Universal Orlando’s part-time team members. That’s a devastating development for the tens of thousands of affected workers, but at least they’ll keep their health insurance and other benefits, and be fast-tracked through Florida’s Sisyphean unemployment system. 

Creative freelancers, on the other hand, aren’t so lucky; although their talents help bring blockbuster attractions to life, as self-employed contractors they are ineligible for the same perks regular park employees receive. For support, they can look instead to organizations like SLICE Creative Network, the Orlando-based organization connecting creative freelance professionals in the attractions industry, which you may remember from my Aug. 28, 2019  column about their “History of Storytelling” event. I reached out to SLICE founder Melody Matheny for some insight into how this often-overlooked category of attraction employees is coping with the COVID-19 closures.

“Some people are freaking out and don’t know when or if they’ll ‘EVERRR!’ find work again. These people find themselves getting depressed and overwhelmed with the situation,” says Matheny, outlining the three forms of responses she’s seeing among freelancers. “Some people are applying for the Small Business loans from the government to help their business survive and understanding that business WILL return. These people will target their pre-existing clients and expect things to get back to normal.” Finally, some freelancers are reacting to the massive layoffs by going into “gangster mode” by “refreshing their portfolios, websites and résumés, and are preparing to come out with ‘guns a-blazin’ to compete with the new talent pool, once the economy is ready to hire again.”

After nearly a decade as a freelance designer, last year Matheny herself joined the ranks of Universal Orlando’s full-time staff (who is still receiving 80% of their salaries), so she’s continuing to work from home while caring for two small children. “My quarantine experience is exponentially more difficult than my normal life, even if I must say I’m getting some quality time in with my family through all of the stress,” she says. “I wish I could watch Tiger King.”

The good news for theme park fans is that, despite the gates being closed to guests, many upcoming projects are still progressing. Although her non-disclosure agreement prohibits her from revealing any details, Matheny says she’s “very impressed with the Universal Entertainment Department’s ability to handle this situation effectively while working from home,” and predicts that there will be “some really fun and amazing things that will be available to the guests immediately” when the resort reopens.

Outside Orlando’s borders, members of the broader SLICE network are reporting that they are still employed and working on projects for late 2020 through 2023 and beyond, which Matheny says “gives us hope that the theme park industry will attempt to get back to normal as quickly as possible under the constraints that each company may be dealing with upon reopening.”

Ironically, the current crisis could turn into a boom time for freelancers if and when the attraction industry begins bouncing back. “Since most companies are currently down to skeleton crews, in order to get back up and running in the coming year, many of them will need to hire freelancers to support their projects,” predicts Matheny. “This experience will hopefully open their minds to working with contractors in creative fields on a more regular basis. Employers may come to understand that hiring freelancers can be valuable in many ways.”

On a longer-term basis, once the pandemic dissipates, Matheny believes that freelancers may be key to the attractions in a post-virus world. “By hiring freelancers, companies will be able to tailor which creative talent they hire for different projects or even different phases of the project, depending on freelancers’ varying artistic strengths and weaknesses,” she says. “This process of collaboration allows the hiring company to intimately engage with more artistically and culturally-aware design solutions, becoming nimble and able to react throughout the evolution of their projects.”

For its part, Slice Creative Network recently co-hosted a webinar with advice for attractions freelancers and is currently offering free one-year memberships to any freelancers who apply between now and July 31. In the meantime, Matheny says theme park freelancers stuck at home are working on a wide range of interesting personal projects.

“Some are using this time to try and create new ways of doing things, new designs, new concepts, that they’ve never had the time to pursue before,” she says, pointing to a Facebook group post where Slice members reported writing scripts, illustrating books, making scale models, starting podcasts and learning to make stained glass while in quarantine. “Some are taking that a step further, with this pandemic happening and attempting to come up with new solutions that the world will require once it restarts.”

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