Disney World News: Pyro Pixie Dust, More Layoffs, Digital Health Passport

We’re back with another Walt Disney World news & rumor round-up. This one covers the return of fireworks at Magic Kingdom and increases to the number of Cast Member layoffs this year and in 2021. We also cover the prospects of a digital health passport system that could allow theme parks and other businesses to verify health credentials of guests, requiring proof of a negative test or vaccination, and only allowing entry to those who comply.

Let’s start with fireworks returning to Magic Kingdom. Over the holiday weekend, Walt Disney World quietly announced that “pyrotechnic pixie-dust moments” have returned, adding occasional bursts of merriment each night at Magic Kingdom as Cinderella Castle is transformed by Christmas projection effects. These magical holiday touches are presently scheduled to occur nightly through December 30, 2020.

We previously covered the projections in Cinderella Castle Christmas Scenes: Crowds, Photos & Info. That post was somewhat critical of the effects, suggesting that guest response and operational realities necessitated further tweaking of this idea. Our evening visits to Magic Kingdom in the weeks since then have only further reinforced that belief, and up until now, we frankly had wondered why Walt Disney World had not implemented any of the (frankly) quick fixes. Well, now we know why…

Previously, it made little sense that each projection would last for 15 minutes, as the result was guests lingering around Main Street, waiting for the complete cycle. The hour required to see every Cinderella Castle Christmas scene meant more guests congregating around the front of the park, which is precisely what Walt Disney World indicated it’s trying to avoid when cancelling nighttime spectaculars.

Now, it makes more sense that each projection is displayed for 15 minutes, because the pyro occurs during the transition between two cycles. (Meaning this isn’t really random at all.) If a scene change happened every two minutes, and the low-level pyro was shot off along with it, that would be a lot of fireworks throughout the course of the night…and also cause even more crowding.

Presumably, these scenes were developed with the fireworks bursts in mind, and the pyro is just now being inserted as Magic Kingdom attendance is picking up. That doesn’t mean the longer cycles are now suddenly a good idea (to the contrary, they’re still a bad idea), but at least they make some degree of sense.

The ‘best of both worlds’ solution is to shorten the projection cycle times, and truly randomize when the pyro is launched. Even that approach is still imperfect. The promise of seeing fireworks is going to cause some guests to linger around Cinderella Castle no matter how Disney does things. Those changes could minimize how many and how long some guests wait, though.

Unless more pyro is added, this is unrelated to the recent Project Nugget Fireworks Test at Magic Kingdom. That involved the rear launch sites behind the park; this utilizes low-level pyro shot from Fantasyland rooftops and Cinderella Castle itself.

On a related note, we watched the Project Nugget fireworks test and still have no clue what purpose it served. As we said before, it could be an oblique reference to something for the golden milestone of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary, or simply opportunistic infrastructure upgrades occurring while there are not nightly pyro launches.

Or, it could be a precursor to more fireworks returning prior to Fall 2021. While we’re not optimistic that Walt Disney World is in any rush to bring back nighttime spectaculars, the digital health passes (discussed below) could accelerate the timeline of the phased reopening plan. (Basically, your guess is as good as ours at this point.)

Next, Disney plans to lay off around 32,000 Cast Members at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, the company revealed in a recent 10-K filing with the SEC. Per the regulatory filing, this is happening due to the current business climate and changing environment in which Disney is operating, and the company has “generated efficiencies in its staffing, including limiting hiring to critical business roles, furloughs, and reductions-in-force.”

This reflects an increase of 4,000 compared to the 28,000 layoffs Disney Parks, Experiences and Products initially announced back. These layoffs will occur in the first half of Disney’s fiscal year 2021, which ends in March 2021. Additionally, Disney revealed in the same filing that as of October 3, 2020, approximately 37,000 employees who are not scheduled for employment termination remained on furlough.

Obviously, it’s been a rough few months for Disney Parks, Experiences and Products (borne out by the quarterly results), especially with Disneyland and Disney Cruise Line not operating. However, we had hoped that Walt Disney World’s improved performance would help buoy the division.

Moreover, it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for the company itself when it has $17.9 billion in cash on hand that could be used to weather the current storm. Disney’s leadership is undoubtedly in a tough position, faced with a variety of no-win scenarios. However, there’s a reason “generated efficiencies” appears in that regulatory filing and “saved jobs” does not. It doesn’t require much speculation to see where leadership’s priorities lie.

While we’re on the topic, we want to once again plug our charity initiative to Help Give Back to Disney Cast Members & Community and also thank everyone profusely for the outpouring of support. Given that furloughs and layoffs are continuing throughout Central Florida during the holiday season, more help is still needed.

Many of you have contributed, and we’ve now raised over $63,000 for Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida. We also wanted to give an update with the tangible results of the fundraiser: a distribution consisting of two trucks filled with 60,000 pounds of food to feed families in need, with another still to come. We are incredibly humbled and heartened by all of your support—DTB readers proving yet again that you are all the best!

Finally, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is in the final stage of developing a new digital health passport called the IATA Travel Pass. This digital Travel Pass will display a record of its user’s records, allowing them to share their tests and vaccination results in a safe, verifiable, and privacy-protecting manner. The organization and many operators view this as vital to safely restarting travel.

IATA is just one of several groups developing digital travel passports (the CLEAR Health Pass and IBM Digital Health Pass are other such initiatives) designed to provide organizations with a smart way to bring people back to a physical location, such as a workplace, school, stadium, airport…or Walt Disney World. IATA’s just so happens to be the one geared primarily towards travel, and is more likely to be the one adopted by the industry.

These digital passports will allow businesses to verify health credentials for employees, customers, and visitors entering their site based on criteria specified by the organization. These systems promise flexible and customizable infrastructure, that fits a variety of situations based on numerous data sources. For example, travel and transportation companies may have a more stringent system for establishing the wellness status for passengers boarding a plane or staying in an on-site hotel than would a third-party restaurant seating guests outdoors at Disney Springs.

For users, privacy will be central to the solution, with people being able to maintain control of their personal health information and share it in a way that is secured and with organizations they trust. Individuals can share their credentials to return to the places they love, without requiring exposure of the underlying personal data used to generate the credential.

The IATA digital health passports is still being developed, but others are actually ready to roll. The IATA Travel Pass will launch in the first quarter of 2021, and is particularly intriguing because it’s expected that many airlines and locations will quickly adopt it in lieu of quarantines.

Keep in mind that this is entirely speculative on our part and not official. However, we feel it’s possible that Walt Disney World will utilize such a solution. We’re sharing this, like we did our prediction that face masks would be mandatory long before Walt Disney World officially announced the policy, so you can mentally prepare yourself for the possibility now.

With almost every airline plus companies like Ticketmaster already indicating that they will require a digital health pass for boarding flights or attending concerts (as the case may be), it’s an inevitability that more businesses will follow suit. As with current health safety protocol, Walt Disney World is a candidate for such a system for several reasons. One big reason is that Cast Member unions might push for it. Another is Disney’s longstanding reputation as being on the forefront of safety.

From our perspective, the potential timeframe and how Walt Disney World could utilize such a digital health pass is fascinating. We’ve been following this topic for international travel purposes, and there a late Spring 2021 rollout seems most likely. However, our expectation is that airlines will adopt this program prior to other travel providers to reopen international borders; Summer 2021 seems more realistic for domestic purposes. While a lot remains to be seen, Walt Disney World could require proof of a vaccination or negative test result X days before checking into a hotel or first-use of tickets. It’s possible that the digital health pass could even interface with the Disney Park Pass or My Disney Experience infrastructure. (Not that Disney IT needs more moving parts…)

Over the course of the next few months, as the “light at the end of the tunnel” becomes brighter, we’d anticipate this becoming a hot topic with polarizing opinions. Cutting through all of that, we think there are likely two scenarios: one with a system like this in place that offers a shortcut to dropping other health safety protocol and allows an earlier return to normalcy than otherwise. And another scenario with the status quo continuing into Fall 2021, at which point said measures are dropped. Neither option is optimal, but given the choice, we’ll take the digital health pass without hesitation.

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!


Thoughts on any of this Walt Disney World news? Disappointed by the additional layoffs in the Disney Parks, Experiences and Products division? Concerned about Walt Disney World potentially using a digital health passport, or do you welcome that system if it means an earlier return to normalcy? Any theories about fireworks at Magic Kingdom? Do you agree or disagree with our commentary? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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