From the outside, summer at Orlando, Florida’s theme parks will probably look like business as usual: sunburnt tourists, intimidating lines and families making lifelong memories.
But behind the scenes, theme park workers will likely be straining to maintain the high standards Orlando’s attractions are known for.
Park staffing has largely recovered from early in the pandemic, when companies furloughed and laid off tens of thousands of employees, but it continues to trail pre-COVID totals even as workers have been recalled and new employees hired, according to industry experts and data.
Dennis Speigel, CEO of International Theme Park Services, estimated that Walt Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld are at about 85% to 90% staffing numbers in 2019. These levels are stronger than anticipated and a big improvement from early 2021, he said, but staffing still looms large.
“It’s our biggest issue facing the industry,” Speigel said.
In an unsigned statement, a Disney spokesperson did not comment on how the resort’s staffing levels are affecting operations but said the company offers competitive pay and benefits. Spokespeople for Universal and SeaWorld did not respond to messages.
All three companies have reported blockbuster quarters in recent months, reaching historically high revenue and earnings as tourists return to theme parks in force.
Even a slightly smaller workforce can have a big impact on park operations and employee morale, experts said. And every unfilled job counts when Orlando’s tourism numbers are poised to rival record-setting pre-pandemic figures with domestic travel picking up and international visitors returning.
Under these circumstances, theme parks are reaching a turning point in how they attract new workers and treat their existing ones in an industry heavily disrupted by the pandemic.
“I think there’s going to be trouble,” said Scott Smith, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management. “... This is a watershed moment. This could be a great summer for us if we figure it out, or this could be a disastrous summer if we don’t.”