Going Hungry in the Most Magical Place on Earth

Disney World’s union workers, running out of federal aid, are banding together to keep each other afloat.

Hamilton Nolan

An overcast day in Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where thousands of employees have been furloughed or laid off since the beginning of the pandemic. Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

ORLANDO, FLA. — The cars line up as early as 3 a.m. each Saturday. The line snakes down the driveway of a nondescript office park and winds out onto La Quinta Drive on the anonymous backside of the posh, sprawling Florida Mall. At 7 a.m., volunteers begin distributing hand-assembled bags of food through car windows as drivers slowly pull through. These volunteers are members and employees of UNITE HERE in Central Florida, the union representing workers at Disney’s Orlando theme park empire. But the people in the cars are everyone.

Every Saturday since May, this union has run its food bank for thousands of Orlando residents left desperate — first, by the pandemic’s devastation of the tourist industry, then by the failure of the state and federal government to provide assistance. Now, an important part of their social safety net is packed in bags full of beans and rice and flour and cookies, handed out with military precision by union members who are themselves suffering right along with their neighbors. There are diapers for families with babies and toys for families with kids. The entire operation is financed by the union with church and community donations and the sweat of dozens of volunteers. 

The enormously successful food bank is the brainchild of a handful of Disney workers who found themselves furloughed and idled in spring 2020; they wanted to do something to help. One of them was Sharon Ryan, who worked for 25 years as a server at Disney’s Cinderella Castle before abruptly losing her job in April, along with tens of thousands of her colleagues. Since the $600 per week in unemployment benefits provided by the CARES Act ran out in July 2020, Ryan has been living on $242 a week in Florida state benefits. She saw friends selling their cars just to make rent, leaving them with nothing for food (or anything else). Moved to action, she and some friends turned to the union: We have to do something.”

I can’t right now afford to give [anyone] a large check,” Ryan says. But I have time on my hands. I can do whatever.” 

At first, the group did all the food shopping themselves at Walmart, cleaning out shelves at multiple stores — enough food for 200 people. That only lasted the first week. As word spread, they saw 400 cars line up, then 600. Within two month there were a thousand, then more. Ryan has chatted with countless people as they come through — some fellow union members, others laid off from other parts of Orlando’s tourist economy. Ryan knew how they felt; she was not planning on any Christmas shopping this year. It could be another year before I could find work, or another year before they call me back,” Ryan says.

Another volunteer is Nick Caturano, a union shop steward and a server at Disney’s Hollywood & Vine restaurant for the past 16 years. Like thousands of other Disney workers, he suffered for weeks trying to get the utterly broken Florida state unemployment system to start paying his benefits.

The panic was setting in, the longer it went on,” Caturano remembers. Frantic union members were calling him with questions; older workers needed his help filling out applications. All the while, he was scrambling to secure his own benefits. The stress created by that — I got shingles,” he says. 

A weekly line of cars carrying more than a thousand people greets volunteers at the UNITE HERE food bank in Orlando, Fla., home of Walt Disney World. Hamilton Nolan

Caturano has survived in part by spending money he had saved up in hopes of remodeling his house. His wife lost her job as a hairdresser, and the family lost its health insurance. Caturano hasn’t been called back to work at Disney yet, but his deepest concern is for fellow union members having an even harder time. It’s the mental health aspect that worries me,” he says. I hear it in people’s voice. Even though they call me and say they’re okay, you can hear this deep panic and anxiety.

That’s the quiet killer in this whole thing.”

Orlando is a city that lives and dies on tourism and conventions. The nature of this pandemic has absolutely gutted its livelihood.

For UNITE HERE, whose membership faced near-total unemployment when the first lockdowns hit, 2020 was a very concrete demonstration of the benefits of a union.

Disney has committed to recalling the same union workers they laid off, while other non-union Orlando attractions will surely be rehiring only the cheapest workers they can find, leaving older employees (who worked years to earn higher wages) bereft. The union contract has been the only real safety net thousands of people in Orlando have. Disney workers have at least been able to negotiate the terms of their furloughs and get help navigating the unemployment system. The food bank is their chance to pass on a small bit of that to the community.

You expect people to pick themselves up by their bootstraps,” Caturano says. What you don’t realize is, those people did pick themselves up.” The cars lining up for the food bank are full of people who have worked their whole lives. They’re just holding on.”

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

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