Home » A Disturbing Culture Shift is Having A Major Effect on The People Who Make Our Vacations Possible–Including Disney Cast Members

A Disturbing Culture Shift is Having A Major Effect on The People Who Make Our Vacations Possible–Including Disney Cast Members

“I sense a disturbance in the Force…”

We are living in historic times. We’ve all experienced the far reaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in some form or fashion—life has changed in ways we never expected. Travel has become a more valuable commodity, one not so easily achieved as before. We’re navigating a new world with uncertain footing and new rules that may shift depending on where we are. On top of this, emotions have been high due to other factors ranging from political tensions to unprecedented weather events.

It’s been a weird year, and I think it’s safe to say we could all use a peaceful vacation…

These singular times have had a particularly strong effect on those who work in the travel-entertainment industry, such as the flight attendants who help get us from home to destination and cast members in popular destinations like Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando Resort. For the sake of brevity throughout this article, when I refer to one, you can assume the same information applies to other travel-service professionals as well.

Video: YouTube, Jett Farrell-Vega (@My Kingdom for a Mouse)

It has been a difficult year to work in these industries. It’s been a time of tenuous job security and mass layoffs, of unpredictable tempers and shifting boundaries. A certain amount of stress is expected with any guest service job—where there are human beings, you will find conflict, even on matters as innocuous as differences of values.

The problem is that these strange times have triggered a shift in the emotional burdens expected of the professionals who make our favorite vacations possible…

Cast Members & Flight Attendants are having to become emotional babysitters

There’s not really a better way to put it—it seems like more than ever, travel service professionals are having to walk on eggshells with guest emotions for fear someone might lose their cheese at any time.

This isn’t an unusual scenario in the service industry, but the frequency and intensity of these encounters are increasing in disturbing ways. We tend to notice situations that get lots of press, but how many of these scenarios never make the news? Cast members, for example, are already dealing with the stress of park closures, mass layoffs, budget cuts, and keeping themselves and their families safe in the midst of a global pandemic—if you add to this the stress that any given interaction with a guest (particularly involving pandemic policies) may result in instant rage and people are going to wear out fast.

It’s the tiredness in the eyes behind the smiles… the overheard conversation about the weariness of the times… the breaking of the mask when another guest spits venom over being asked to follow the rules.

While I’ve seen this phenomenon on previous visits to Walt Disney World after the parks reopened, it really struck me on a recent Southwest flight across the country. There was a strange tension in the air as passengers slowly boarded the plane. The attendant making announcements had to do a lot of over-clarifying, and I immediately picked up cues in his voice—attempting to speak gently but firmly, choosing words with great caution.

Onboard the plane, guests looked about the cabin uncomfortably as one passenger’s voice rose above the others—he was speaking harshly, spewing passive-aggressive insults seemingly to someone nearby as if they’d had an argument. He got upset when people talked over the flight attendant announcement, purposefully getting louder and making lots of fuss and huffing to be heard. His tone was such that I questioned if he might be unique case of someone who just didn’t recognize social cues. The tension thickened—was this going to be one of those flights we’ve all read about in the past months?

The flight crew gave every announcement in the gentlest emotional-support tone I’ve ever heard on a plane, a soft voice that seemed to say, “We’re all in this together… Please help us keep this a blow-up free flight.”

Fortunately in the case of this flight, the man in question calmed down quickly and things went smoothly, but it’s not unheard of these days for people to lose their calm on planes. Over 2000 passengers have been banned by major airlines in previous months for unruly behavior, often regarding mask rules. As for theme park professionals, several incidents at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort made national news, including physical altercations between guests and even a case of a man attacking at EPCOT security guard over mask rules.

I’m not saying these occurrences happen every time–the majority of guests are following the guidelines the best they can. However, even when full-on belligerence isn’t an issue, confrontational or snippy attitudes are becoming a more regular occurrence. The human mind isn’t designed to be on alert all the time—the burden is starting to trend beyond what is reasonable for our service professionals due to the increased intensity of these incidents.

What’s behind this uptick in tensions? A few factors are worth considering…

Unpredictable responses to pandemic rules still happen

The first issue surrounds a topic that isn’t surprising in these times: enforcement of mask-wearing and social distancing rules. I’m not going to touch the rules themselves or the conflicts of values and politics that have become attached to them. The issue is that these concepts have become deeply polarizing in the first place—emotional weight tied to deeply held personal values are being challenged at times during travel and vacations in connection to these new rules.

This is tricky ground, but here’s one way to break it down. We tend to sometimes view situations like vacations or flights like we are purchasing the right to a pleasing experience. While this is true to a point—good guest service is important–the truth is that when we visit a theme park or fly on a plane, we still have to follow some rules and guidelines set by that entity to keep the integrity of that experience and keep other guests safe. The owners of an airline or theme park can set whatever guidelines they feel are appropriate to accomplish those ends. A less controversial example is the way Disney used to actively discourage the use of flash photography on rides—it breaks the integrity of the experience for others.  If we do not like those rules, we can certainly write emails or voice our opinion, but ultimately, the most appropriate protest is simply to not purchase that service.

We cannot feign ignorance of rules flying on a plane or visiting Disney parks right now. With Walt Disney World, it is basically impossible to even get a reservation for the parks without being made aware of the rules regarding mask wearing and social distancing. No bait and switch tactics are involved… the expectations are made clear. These rules may be uncomfortable for some at times, but in the case of Disney, some accommodations have been made, such as the implementation of distanced relaxation zones and freedom to remove your mask if eating and drinking while stationary.

I know the rules can be awkward at times—I had a hilarious incident during my last visit to Magic Kingdom staring down a quickly-melting Dole Whip float while I searched for an appropriately-distanced spot to stop and enjoy it. Despite the discomfort, I recognized that those are the rules, and I wanted to honor the effort Disney cast members are putting forth to keep the parks safe.

Why are we snapping at the messengers required to enforce these rules when the expectations have been made clear? They aren’t the ones in the board rooms making the decisions in the first place.

The cast member who asks you to stay distanced in a queue isn’t trying to wreck your vacation or belittle you—they’re doing their job. In the case of flight attendants, the situation is even more unique—most people do not realize that a flight attendant’s primary job is not to serve passenger needs. Particularly since September 11th, 2001, it is above all else to keep passengers safe, with courteous service and assisting needs as a secondary function. The secondary job is still important, but it does not override the flight crew’s primary duty.

Keeping realistic expectations for vacations

There’s another factor completely apart from pandemic policies that seems to be playing into this phenomenon—to put it frankly, it’s an increase in “Karen” behavior.

For those of us unfamiliar with the latest Gen-Z lingo (I work with teenagers, and I still can’t keep up), a “Karen” can be many things but is usually a person who tends to make an over-the-top fuss about inconveniences and disagreements, usually relating to customer service. While meme-culture often tags this label onto specific types of people, really the concept can apply to any human being regardless of gender or race. When someone “goes full-Karen”, they’re getting upset and making waves beyond what is necessary for resolving a customer service dispute. Either the issue is entirely petty, or some level of emotional bullying is involved.

(Note, this next bit was added after publication) I was almost hesitant to use the term because it’s used pretty brutally, and I feel for people named Karen during this season (who most often are, ironically, not “Karens”). I’ll be happy, honestly, when it vanishes from English vocabulary. However, I kept it in because it makes a point–it’s a startling term that draws attention to the behavior and sums it up in a simple concise way that makes sense to the culture in this moment of time.

An increase in stress and tensions is not entirely unexpected during this season. People are weary from the events of this past year. For families whose lives have been turned upside down by kids at home, job changes, or extended lockdowns, a quality vacation is suddenly a much more urgent craving. There’s an understandable longing for the familiar, and at a place like Walt Disney World, there is a certain reasonable expectation for above-and-beyond guest service.

The problem comes when cast members are now having to devote increased emotional energy to managing unrealistic guest expectations. Fury can be triggered by anything ranging from queue lengths to menu changes to closed rides. In most cases, these situations are matters beyond the cast member’s control. Even matters of guests micromanaging enforcement of pandemic rules can grow wearying for cast members.

As mentioned, some of this is par for the course in the entertainment / travel industry—you don’t get into a front-of-house job in a theme park or tourist location without building up a thick skin for occasionally dealing with conflict and occasional unhappy guests. The problem is unnecessarily adding to this burden. These are human beings who can only take so much. I am so incredibly impressed with the cast members I have seen at Walt Disney World since reopening—they are doing an incredible job, and the parks still feel magical thanks to their efforts.

But there are times I spot the weariness behind the cheerful eyes …

I’ve heard cast members occasionally let their guard down, confiding about the challenges of working in a theme park during a pandemic. Their families are strained. Layoffs are an ever-present threat. They’ve seen friends laid off, and they still do their best to try to ensure each guests has a safe and fulfilling experience. They are there to serve and do a great job, but they are not automatons nor should they be targets to absorb petty complaints and frustrations about the complexities of life and circumstance.

What can be done about it?

It’s been wisely stated that we spend most of our human effort stressing about things we cannot control—we largely focus on the circles of circumstances beyond our intervention and matters that we may be able to influence but not fully control. Sure, I can write an article encouraging people to be mindful and nice to cast members and flight attendants, but I can’t control who will and won’t read such a piece.

But every single one of us can make a personal choice to see the humanity in those we encounter…

We can choose to love and show kindness to others as we would desire to see it done for ourselves, even while travelling. I’m not saying we need to coddle or baby our travel professionals. I’m not saying you should never raise a complaint or seek help with a guest experience situation. I’m just saying that courtesy, gratitude, and encouragement can go along way to lifting someone’s spirits in these challenging times.

Smile despite the mask—your eyes will show it. Thank cast members and flight attendants for doing their jobs in the midst of the craziness in the world. Have engaging conversations where appropriate. Laugh with them. When things go sour on a vacation, take a moment to breathe before choosing how to respond—is the dispute something a service worker can actually control? Is there a way to express the issue constructively instead of in anger? When it comes to pandemic rules, we all have to follow the same policies anyways—let’s not make things more challenging (and potentially unsafe) for cast members by bending the rules. If we goof up, just do as asked and stay polite and friendly.

I do not claim to know everything or every person’s circumstance… this is just one writer’s opinion who has noticed that some of our fellow human beings need some care and encouragement right now. My goal is not to point the finger but to provoke thoughtfulness—how can we make this crazy world a little bit of a warmer place by showing kindness and patience, even at theme parks?

In closing, as a huge geek, I particularly like the way Gandalf puts it in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey:

“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love…”

Enjoy this article? Keep reading to get a glimpse of what Disney’s Magic Kingdom is like on a full capacity day or explore the pandemic policies at Disney parks that are still confusing some guests