Who moved my cheese? Mickey Mouse gnaws away at theme park jobs

Profits at the Walt Disney parks tumbled by nearly a quarter in the first fiscal quarter of the year, leading the theme park giant to stanch the flow of blood by laying off staff. Keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle, Disney fans -- it's going to be a bumpy ride.


Disney Parks isn't telling just how many positions it plans to eliminate, but suffice to say that it'll take more than pixie dust to get the parks airborne again. The company recently offered buyouts to 600 park executives at the tip of a barrel loaded with pink slips, and last week it consolidated operations of its resorts (which previously had a wide degree of autonomy) into one organization. Now comes word that the cutbacks will kneecap the rank and file, too.

The Disney parks have been stealthily slashing at the essentials for a year now, to little notice. Last June, it quietly began outsourcing Audio-Animatronic robotic figures, a technology for creating lifelike human robots that the company famously invented and has operating on many of its most beloved attractions. Now, China helps make the figures. In September, the start of their fiscal year, the Disney parks yanked attractions, closed areas, and gutted the schedule of spectaculars.

Longtime fans are already grousing about other cuts. Longer waits for resort shuttles and to reach phone operators. (Adding to the insult, Disney doesn't offer toll-free long-distance numbers to the general public, so would-be guests are paying for the wait.)

Inside the parks, some attractions (including the Monsters, Inc. comedy club at the Magic Kingdom and the historical exhibition about Walt Disney himself at Hollywood Studios) are now trimming their opening hours so that the company won't have to pay two shifts' worth of actors to work them. Although the resorts can truthfully claim they're operational, in fact, their availability has been curtailed. Even some high-priced (and staff-intensive) "character meals," during which kids meet with a fleet of costumed characters, have been shelved, with some resort restaurants no longer offering them at all.

It's not as if the parks are empty. The lines seem as long as they ever were. Disney is throwing deal after deal at the public, including the right to visit for free on your birthday in 2009, and Universal Orlando gave away 100,000 one-week passes during the Super Bowl. But nothing can bring back the free-spending days of the past. Once guests get through the gates, they simply aren't spending as much as they used to spend, and the company is feeling the pullback.

For years, Disney's bottom line has depended on the principle that once customers are in the thrall of that "magic," they won't be able to resist upgrading their hotel rooms, buying plenty of souvenirs, and staying for longer than they might need to. Now that Americans are budgeting more carefully, the impulse buys are choked off, and that's thrown a wrench into Disney's economic model. In no small way, the penalties of charging $75 for a day ticket are coming home to roost. Guests refuse to spend much more than that now.

Orlando itself is hunkering down for a cold economic winter. Forbes magazine says that Orlando is the seventh-emptiest city in America, with 7.3% of homes sitting vacant, and 12.3% of rentals empty. Hotel rooms are faring even worse: Last month, four in ten, on average, were vacant.

When the theme parks are slashing jobs (Universal Orlando is also canning shows to combat payroll costs), don't expect those figures to improve: Some 200,000 jobs in Central Florida depend on tourism, and 62,000 of those positions are with Disney.

In Anaheim, where the other American Disney park is, the city is so desperate it has ruled in its own favor toward forcing the major online hotel room bookers to pay more than $21 million in taxes that no one's really sure they actually owe.

It's gotten so bad for Disney that Republicans have taken to using its name as a shorthand for all that is wasteful and useless. In last night's Republican response to Pres. Obama's address, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal once again mocked Disneyland by citing the stimulus bill's promise of development of a high-speed rail line that could go there. I'm sure the 3.1 million residents of Orange County don't appreciate the sarcasm. Disney's world may be getting smaller after all, but we could all use more affordable public transportation.

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