Avoiding Business Disaster—Learning from Disney During the Pandemic

Like the rest of the world, Disney is navigating unchartered territory in the COVID-19 pandemic. As a global business whose theme parks posed an insurmountable obstacle to social distancing, Disney had little choice but to close its parks until it is deemed safe to resume operations. Disney employs a massive number of people in its theme parks around the globe, so closing the gates had a substantial impact on employees and local economies around each park.

What did Disney do right to avoid a business disaster?

Many large businesses should have taken a lesson out of Disney’s playbook when it came to handling the pandemic, especially in how Disney treated its employees. Disney continued to pay many of their staff members through April 18th, more than a month after the parks had closed.

In Florida, when Disney was forced to furlough its employees, the company took the initiative to file unemployment claims on behalf of its workers. For those who have followed the news about the frustrating process of attempting to file unemployment claims in the current climate, you realize what an advantage this was to Disney employees who did not have to spend endless hours trying to fight an overburdened system.

Managers and leaders have kept in contact with most of their staff throughout the pandemic, making sure everyone is doing okay. Given that Disney employs over forty thousand employees in Florida alone, that is a substantial undertaking.

One of the most essential steps Disney took was closing its parks ahead of government mandates that they do so. Some places, like Florida, were slow to roll out any type of social distancing or stay at home orders. In areas like that, Disney could have continued to operate for some time. In a business where each day brings in millions of dollars in revenue, closing early showed a sense of responsibility to staff and visitors.

Other venues and parks could learn from Disney in how quickly and effectively, Disney made changes to accommodate the potential health crisis. Disney made the health and safety of its guest a priority by increasing cleaning and sanitizing measures in the parks, providing hand sanitizing stations throughout the parks. The impressive thing is that they implemented these measures quickly during the very early days of the coronavirus.

Efforts like those named above are what keep Disney employees loyal to the company, and helps maintain a stellar public image.  Though Disney had no option to closing its theme parks and they did more than most large companies to help their employees, Disney also made some moves that could prove disastrous.

Business mistakes Disney made

Though overall Disney did a decent job in protecting customers, and in looking after its employees, there are mistakes in how they handled such an unprecedented event.

  • Disney had to know that the closure would be indefinite in the early days of the pandemic, but they initially stated they would be closed until the end of March. They waited until the end of March to announce the indefinite closure of the parks. This time in limbo made things more complicated than necessary for the tens of thousands of employees, as well as frustrating for vacationers who waited to cancel their vacation plans in hopes that Disney would reopen by early May.
  • Disney announced its closure several days in advance without taking any steps to restrict crowds on the final days. People packed into the park, shoulder to shoulder, to try to get in the last visit before the parks closed. Given that they were closing due to a public health emergency, not limiting crowds seemed a bit irresponsible.
  • No one can predict the length of the pandemic, and no one expects Disney to have a crystal ball, but they could release more information to both future guests and staff about how they plan to reopen and even an estimated timeline.


The total lack of information from Disney about future plans is frustrating for both employees and guests who are eagerly awaiting any news from the Happiest Place on Earth. The lack of information has depleted some of the goodwill Disney built by its responsible handling of the initial shutdown. Given that Disney has already opened its Disney Springs shopping center, there must be at least the outline of a plan for reopening. Both guests and employees would appreciate feeling like Disney was making some effort to keep them in the loop about future plans.

  • It remains to be seen what steps Disney will take to protect its guest once the parks do reopen. Most people predict that the parks will reopen in stages, but one has to wonder if guests will be willing to pay for a less than full Disney experience.
  • The great unknown could prove to be a disaster for Disney. Will people feel safe returning to a crowded theme park in the foreseeable future? If Disney reopens with a modified maximum capacity, will enough people buy tickets? Employees are concerned about the unknowns they are facing. They realize their jobs at Disney could be at risk if Disney is forced into a permanent or semi-permanent reduction in its workforce.