UPDATE: Disney Requiring Cast Member Vaccines

Disney will mandate all non-union hourly and salaried Cast Members at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and other on-site locations in the United States to get vaccinated against COVID-19. This post will share details plus commentary about any potential guest impact. (Updated August 23, 2021.)

Earlier this month, the Walt Disney Company released a statement that it will be requiring all salaried and non-union hourly employees in the United States who work on site or have an in-person office presence to be fully vaccinated, with medical and religious exemptions for employees who qualify.

Per the previous statement, employees who aren’t already vaccinated will have 60 days to do so, and those who are still working from home will need to show proof of vaccination prior to returning. All new hires will be required to be fully vaccinated before starting work at the company. Disney also indicated that it has begun conversations about vaccine requirements with unions that represent many frontline Cast Members at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

“Vaccines are the best tool we all have to help control this global pandemic and protect our employees,” the Walt Disney Company’s statement reads.

The Walt Disney Company is Florida’s largest employer and also the largest single site employer in the United States. In California, the Walt Disney Company is also one of the 5 largest employers, behind only the state’s university system and a couple of other employers.

August 23, 2021 Update: Orlando’s NBC news affiliate is reporting that union leaders and Walt Disney World have reached an agreement for mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for all unionized Cast Members. This means that Disney will be requiring vaccines for all employees, not just non-union workers as mentioned above in the original press release.

“In the agreement, Disney has made the decision to require all Service Trades Council Union represented employees to show proof of vaccination by October 22, 2021,” a press release from the union states. “Disney will make every effort to reasonably accommodate employees with a medical or religious accommodation need in their current role or classification. Cast Members who do not comply with the vaccine requirement and do not request a legitimate accommodation, will be separated from the Company with a ‘yes’ rehire status,” the statement reads per WESH 2.

In addition to vaccines being readily available throughout Central Florida, Walt Disney World will be hosting on-site vaccine events over the next several weeks at Magic Kingdom, Yacht & Beach Club Resorts, and Disney Springs. Cast interested in getting vaccinated at work should go on the HUB for more information.

This occurring on the same day that the United States Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is likely no coincidence. As we discussed in this week’s Florida COVID-19 Report, this milestone will almost certainly lead to a spike in workplace vaccine mandates among employers and organizations that were previously weary about requiring vaccinations under the EUA.

The Walt Disney Company was not the first major employer in the United States to announce such a requirement. In the last week, dozens of companies have announced similar policies amidst surging case numbers driven by the more transmissible Delta variant.

The trend began in Silicon Valley, with Google, Facebook, Netflix, Lyft, Uber, Twitter, and others to announce vaccine requirements for in-person employees at corporate offices. It continued with New York-based businesses and banks, including Morgan Stanley. One of the more high-profile announcements came from the founder of Shake Shack, who stated both employees and customers of Union Square Hospitality Group must prove they’re vaccinated (despite the phrasing, this does not apply to Shake Shack itself).

Almost simultaneous with Disney, Walmart announced that all employees at its headquarters and managers who travel within the U.S. must be vaccinated by early October. Walmart’s vaccine mandate excludes frontline workers, who are the overwhelming majority of its workforce and have a lower vaccination rate than management. Walmart is also doubling to $150 the incentive it’s offering to workers in stores, clubs, and distribution centers to get the vaccine.

While not the first, the Walt Disney Company is the most high-profile, established, and influential employer to announce a vaccine requirement. When Disney makes a move, the business world takes note. It’s a legacy company that still serves as a guiding light for other employers around the world. Suffice to say, Disney’s move will set a precedent that reverberates far beyond the company itself.

As indicated by the company’s statement, Disney also has started conversations with unions that represent employees under collective bargaining agreements. Unite Here Local 362 president Eric Clinton told the Orlando Sentinel that Disney and the union–which represents 9,000 attractions and custodial workers at Walt Disney World–is already in negotiations about mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for its members.

The union’s members have been surveyed, and there is support for everyone getting inoculated, Clinton said. “The only way that workers can protect themselves at work is by getting vaccinated,” he said. As with non-union workers, there will be exceptions for some people who can’t be vaccinated because of medical or religious reasons. “We’ll have to work through the details of how those cast members are accommodated,” Clinton said.

While this is only one of many unions representing frontline Cast Members, there’s no reason to believe the sentiment differs among the various unions or groups of Cast Members. Moreover, it’s likely the unions will provide minimal resistance, as their best interests align with Disney’s when it comes to mandatory vaccinations.

As with the United States population at large, there is undoubtedly vaccine hesitancy among individual Cast Members, just as there was/is a range of opinions among Cast Members about face masks. Disney’s employees are humans, and attitudes towards vaccines likely mirror those of the general public when broken down by age, education, income, religion, ethnicity, etc. demographics.

Given that and the tight labor market that presently poses a significant impediment to Walt Disney World hiring and accelerating its phased reopening, the company leading on vaccines for frontline workers is thus mildly surprising. The move could cause some Cast Members to leave their jobs, and at a time when Walt Disney World cannot afford more turnover. (The newly-reinstated indoor mask rules will likely lead to the same.)

From a business perspective, a more cautious position would’ve mirrored that taken by Walmart, requiring vaccines for white collar employees while not doing so for hourly, frontline workers. Of course, the two are in very different sectors and it’s clear that Disney’s calculus differs.

One possibility there is that Disney is betting on its outsized influence leading to many other major employers following suit, and instituting vaccine requirements even for frontline workers.

If other major employers in Central Florida and Southern California are doing the same, Disney is less of an outlier, and employees will be less likely to leave due to lack of more accommodating alternatives. We should know by sometime in the coming week as to how much of the area hospitality industry embraces similar policies for rank and file workers.

Another is that the nature of Disney’s business as a family-friendly vacation destination with a reputation for safety and high standards. If consumer sentiment once again turns and visiting theme parks or Florida as a whole is no longer viewed as safe by a large segment of Disney’s core demographic, that has negative ramifications on the company’s bottom line.

While Disney cannot control how Florida is perceived by consumers, they can do so for Walt Disney World. That might be enough given its reputation as a “bubble” vacation destination. A vaccine requirement for Cast Members is simultaneously reassuring to guests with discomfort, while also presenting minimal friction to visitors who are resistant to further health safety protocol.

On that note, we have received reader questions and confusion about whether Walt Disney World will institute vaccine requirements for guests.

The simple and straightforward answer is no. This is clear and concise, with zero speculation required. The company cannot do so under Florida law–a law that has thus far stood up to legal challenges by the cruise industry. (For significantly expanded commentary, see this spring’s article: No Vaccine Passports at Walt Disney World or in Florida.)

This does theoretically leave the door open for vaccine mandates for guests at Disneyland. We do not believe that will happen. This assessment does require speculation, but we believe it will not happen at Disneyland for a couple of reasons.

First, because Disney could’ve been more aggressive with its vaccine policy for guests aboard Disney Cruise Line (within the parameters of Florida law), but opted against going as far as other cruise lines. If Disney wouldn’t go further with cruises, there’s absolutely no reason to believe they’ll do so with day visits to theme parks. The business risk is lower and the volume of guests is higher. It’s more burdensome from a guest flow and staffing perspective while offering less value to the company.

Second, because it’s unlikely the state of California will impose such a requirement on businesses. Given the standoff between California and Disney over reopening last year (and early this year), you might view this is an unlikely and bold prediction.

The difference now is that Governor Newsom faces a recall election on September 14, 2021. The central issue to that is his handling of the pandemic, with mask mandates, shuttered schools, and onerous business restrictions being his biggest liabilities. His favorability ratings have improved in tandem with the relaxation of restrictions; there is every reason to believe state policies between now and mid-September will be dictated by that polling. Accordingly, it’s unlikely the state will reintroduce strict measures on businesses. Given political leanings, it’s also unlikely Orange County, California will do anything of the sort.

Finally, there’s the indirect guest impact at Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

The biggest potential thing here pertains to traditional character meet & greets. For several months, our perspective on those was that they’d be one of the last things to return due to the optics and risk of having potentially unvaccinated performers and children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated in close proximity to one another. Requiring performers be vaccinated would change half of the equation on that. Perhaps that would be sufficient to cause a policy change or perhaps not. It might take the pediatric vaccine approval or cases to bottom out for a sustained amount of time before that change occurs.

We’d caution against premature excitement over the possibility of this change. There are other barriers to bringing back meet & greets and character meals in full force, with staffing being one significant problem. At the absolute best, normal character encounters could return to a limited degree by October 2021. As we’ve stated countless times before, we would not expect “normalcy” on the character front until sometime in 2022. Even with optimistic assumptions, it’s simply going to take time for those changes to fully roll out at Walt Disney World. (Disneyland will have it a little easier, but it’s still probably a 2022 thing.)

For more updates as we track the return to normalcy, see our comprehensive FAQ posts: What’s Returning to Walt Disney World in 2021 & 2022 and What’s Returning to Disneyland in 2021 & 2022. Need Disney trip planning tips and comprehensive advice? Make sure to read Disney Parks Vacation Planning Guides, where you can find comprehensive guides to Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and beyond! For Disney updates, discount information, all of the latest breaking news, and much more, sign up for our FREE email newsletter!