By Erich Schwartzel
Since her internship at Walt Disney World abruptly ended when the park closed in March, 24-year-old Devon Elizabeth Sofia has had a top priority: staying in shape for when the park reopens.
Quarantined in her parents' home in St. Louis, she heads to a gym in the backyard to choreograph dances inspired by some of the 16 roles she played. Fancy Nancy, a ballerina, pirouettes on her toes. Timon, the wisecracking meerkat from "The Lion King," inspires squatting moves -- good for quads and glutes -- whereas Vampirina, a six-year-old vampire on a Disney Channel show, gets a jauntier, more active mix.
That's on top of daily runs of up to 10 miles, wearing a sweatshirt to simulate the Orlando heat.
"It's not going to be fun for the company or for us if we're not in the shape that we left in," she said.
For Ms. Sofia, who hopes to return to work at Disney, and other "character performers" at the park, having a job to return to may depend on resisting the urge to veg out. An expanding waist on Cinderella is a no-go, since her gown is sewn to fit only a limited range of circumferences. Bosses refer to any weight gain as a "silhouette problem." Employees are usually given 30 to 90 days to rectify it or be reassigned to other roles.
That is among the many things on the minds of the 100,000 employees who find themselves furloughed from the Happiest Place on Earth.
Parks employees make up the largest segment of Disney's workforce. "Cast members" at Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., run the gamut from college students spending a semester on the job to aspiring actors and actresses in their 20s and 30s, to veterans with decades of experience.
They are the point of human contact for millions of consumers interacting with the world's largest entertainment company, and the vessels of many of the memories and impressions made there. To have to deliver, as Ms. Sofia said, "a once-in-a-lifetime exchange with family after family" requires physical and emotional wherewithal, and the workers' unusual zeal shows -- even weeks into unemployment.
Furloughed workers say they are doing their character makeup at home to ensure they don't lose the special touch. They've made Disney-themed face masks and sewn Disney-themed embroidery, and stream Disney+ to stay in touch with the characters they portray. One Disneyland stage-show employee is watching vintage Disney parades on YouTube in between binges of "Sex and the City," hoping to find new ideas to implement when he returns.
Disney referred to comments made on an earnings call earlier this month by Chief Executive Bob Chapek.
"We are fully committed to getting our employees back to work as quickly as the current situation allows," said Mr. Chapek.
Disney park employees fall into dozens of categories, from custodians to wildlife experts to VIP tour guides, who escort ultrawealthy guests through the park, sometimes for more than $600 an hour.
The character performers, the cast of people who dress up as Disney characters, face specific challenges. The physicality required is daunting. Cast members frequently log 20,000 steps a day, and portray characters so beloved that every muscle move -- a gait, elbow pop or head tilt -- is scrutinized by guests.
The performers learn protocol essential to maintaining "character integrity." Chief among them: Never acknowledge that there are people playing characters to begin with. Rather than say, "I play Goofy at Disney," performers must come up with explanations like, "I'm close friends with Goofy." Even on furlough, workers declined to characterize their jobs any other way in interviews.
The required character integrity also keeps the performers' looks in check. Women portraying animated characters generally keep waist sizes between 2 and 8, costume designers say. Acne breakouts are a problem. Fair maidens can't show up with tan lines.
And when a princess inevitably ages out of a role, there are others she might step into.
"Mary Poppins is where princesses go to die," goes the cast member refrain.
One 28-year-old, who portrays both Mickey and Minnie Mouse, gained weight following a car accident and started exercising with a personal trainer four days a week to make sure she could maintain approvals to play her characters.
The pressure is on because the roles are hugely competitive, and workers have occasionally been told there are hiring freezes on certain height ranges, which is how the roles are cast. Ms. Sofia tried out more than a half-dozen times.
For 46-year-old Jason Currie, the furlough is the longest he's gone without performing in public since he started singing with a church choir in Atlanta as a child. He joined Disneyland in 2006 and now walks the park as a baritone member of the Dapper Dans barbershop quartet.
Mr. Currie, who studied opera at Juilliard, has developed a dopey persona that's a favorite of frequent visitors. When he spots a toddler resting on his father's shoulders, he exclaims, "It's a real-life totem pole!"
Since Mr. Currie has been away from the park, fans who visit Disneyland every weekend have tracked him down on social media -- just to tell him how much they miss seeing him.
They may not recognize him. For the first time in his 14 years at Disney, Mr. Currie doesn't have to look perpetually fresh-faced. He's done something these past few weeks he hasn't ever done before: grown a beard.
Disney's decision to furlough parks employees was inconceivable to workers only a couple of months ago.
Outside of the occasional hurricane or earthquake, Disneyland and Disney World are 365-day-a-year operations. Christmas is among the parks' busiest days. Disney parks closed on Sept. 11, 2001, but they reopened on Sept. 12.
In late February, however, early warning signs started to appear. A group of Italian employees working in Epcot were told to stay away from the park following a trip to their home country. Supply-chain issues in Asia held up the release of a special-edition pin tied to the March release "Onward." Ticket takers began asking supervisors about getting extra hand sanitizer.
On March 12, Disney said it was closing its parks. Workers closing up shop were encouraged to take Lysol home with them.
By closing its domestic parks, Disney was shutting down its fastest-growing and most profitable division, one that in 2019 accounted for 45% of the company's overall operating income. Closing for even one day because of bad weather can eliminate tens of millions of dollars in revenue.
Disneyland and Disney World workers were paid through April 18, then the vast majority were furloughed, meaning they wouldn't be paid. Disney is continuing their health-care benefits and access to other perks like a company continuing education program.
Even before the furloughs, many Disney parks workers had side gigs to make ends meet, such as teaching English online to Chinese toddlers. In Anaheim, housing costs are especially onerous and social-media pages are filled with requests for roommates. The Mickey and Minnie Mouse performer said that when she first started at Disneyland she shared a four-bedroom house with 11 other colleagues.
An analyst report by JPMorgan Chase estimated the furloughs -- the largest by any entertainment company in the U.S. -- could help save $500 million. For the three months ended March 28, Disney said the coronavirus dealt a $1 billion hit to its parks division even though that only covered a few weeks of the parks closures. The losses are expected to be significantly higher for the current quarter.
And ironically, some are now taking in more money than before, under the stimulus unemployment plan.
One Disney World employee, who has worked at the park for several years, makes a little more than $14 an hour as part of the entertainment team. At 40 hours a week, he takes home about $400 after taxes.
His unemployment claim has still not been processed in Florida since he was furloughed, but he expects his weekly income to more than double when it is. Unemployment benefits will likely come in at $275, plus the extra $600 added by the government's plan through July 31.
"We are grateful Disney has chosen to furlough us," the entertainer said.
Disney has said that its domestic parks will remain closed for the foreseeable future. On Monday, Shanghai Disneyland became the company's first park to resume operations, with attendance limited to 30% of capacity or about 24,000 people. Disneyland and Disney World are also expected to implement crowd-control measures, as well as temperature checks before entering and mandatory masks for workers and guests. Some of the most popular attractions, like a "Frozen" live show performed in the Hyperion Theater, are unlikely to resume while consumers are reluctant to sit in close quarters.
For workers hired to perform as Disney characters, the pandemic has forced a top-to-bottom re-evaluation of the job they do.
Mr. Currie, the barbershop baritone, wonders whether he will still aimlessly tousle a kid's hair, or if they'll have to scrap the dance he and his fellow crooners perform when enlisted to help a guest propose at the park. While the proposer stands at the group's center, the singers often jokingly pass the man or woman being proposed to their partner before the big question is popped. That's not going to work now.
And how do you retain the magic of meeting Mickey Mouse in a socially distanced Disney?
As the Mickey and Minnie performer said: "We're so used to hugging children all day."
Write to Erich Schwartzel at email@example.com
Corrections & Amplifications
This item was corrected on May 22, 2020 to show that Devon Elizabeth Sofia was interning at Walt Disney World when the park closed in March. An earlier version incorrectly said she was an employee who'd been furloughed.