Disney World Workers Endure Tourists Who Punch, Yell, Grope

By Gabrielle Russon | October 14, 2019

ORLANDO, Fla. — Disney World employees are easy targets.

Tourists scream at them, sexually harass them and in the most serious cases, physically attack them, according to law enforcement reports.

“There are so many situations, so many things that happen every single day to cast members,” said Disney employee Tommy Fontenot, adding that he has seen co-workers crying in the break room. “The guests will push the boundaries . We serve as an emotional punching bag.

“As a cast member, you have to develop a thick skin.”

The Orlando Sentinel reviewed nearly 50 reports _ including nine filed in 2019 _ over a decade at Disney World, where the daily population of guests, workers and vendors can swell to about 250,000, the same size as Reno, Nevada.

Last year, reportedly 21 million people visited the Magic Kingdom alone.

The reports are likely just the tip of the iceberg because employees say many problems go unreported to authorities.

“Our cast members take great pride in making magic for guests, so it is always disturbing when something like this occurs,” said Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger in a statement. “Fortunately, it doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, we have multiple resources in place to protect our cast members’ well-being, including on-site law enforcement officers who respond, and are available to them.”

Much of the tourists’ ire stems from waiting in line, imperfect technology and confusion with FastPasses, all of which are the realities of visiting a crowded theme park. Other times, it’s just being told `No.’

In July, the Sentinel broke the story of an extreme case of abuse that went viral. Angered because she didn’t have a FastPass to Tower of Terror, a 23-year-old Chicago woman punched a Disney employee in the face and then began pushing buttons on the pre-show ride podium.

The result was what happens in many cases _ the woman didn’t face legal consequences, although Disney banned her from Disney World for life. The Disney employee, who suffered a swollen eye, declined to press charges.

Disney says the company leaves it up to the employee whether to press charges.

I’m not your slave

Other, similar cases abound:

In July, a tourist staying at the $600-a-night Grand Floridian Resort showed up at the wrong time for his FastPass at the Magic Kingdom. He yelled at the employee until she relented and allowed him to get on the ride anyway.

Instead of thanking her, he grabbed her by the shoulder and whirled her around to face him.

“I’m not your slave!” the man shouted again and again. “You don’t tell me what to do!”

He later told authorities he felt like he was being herded “like a dog” and didn’t like how he was spoken to.

The man was banned from Disney World. The case is still under investigation, so his identity was not released in a sheriff’s report. No charges appear to have been filed at the state attorney’s office.

Then, there’s the oil scientist from Ohio who rammed a stroller into a worker repeatedly when he was asked to leave a Magic Kingdom viewing area in 2015. He was arrested but the state attorney dropped the charges after the employee declined to prosecute.

Or the mother of a Make-A-Wish child who shoved a worker who almost fell into the moving platform of the Peter Pan ride in 2012. The woman was angry Disney wouldn’t stop the ride to get her child’s medical equipment off.

A 64-year-old Canadian man said, “Get the (expletive) out of my way,” and pushed a Disney worker last year because he was impatient about exiting after Splash Mountain broke down. He was arrested, but the state attorney’s office later dropped criminal charges.

Treat us with dignity

The bad days “kind of haunt you,” said Fontenot, who filed a sheriff’s report in 2011 after a 57-year-old Miami Beach tourist head-butted him. The tourist was livid that his wife, who walked without any assistance, wasn’t allowed to use the wheelchair line at the Magical Kingdom’s Monorail station.

In his 14 years at working at Disney, it was the only time he has physically assaulted at work, although many times veered dangerously close, said Fontenot. He said it was his decision to not to press charges because he was satisfied that Disney had banned the tourist.

“I just want people to be civil. We’re low-wage workers,” said Fontenot, 39. “Treat us with dignity.”

Outbursts typically happen on the popular rides, although not always. Visitors blow up, shoving and yelling at workers at a Donald Duck meet-and-greet or photo opportunity with the Disney princesses.

Last month, it happened on the children’s Winnie the Pooh ride when a 36-year-old Frenchman scratched an employee, elbowed her in the stomach and then pushed her after the ride broke down, according to the reports.

Disney employees aren’t alone on the front lines when a situation erupts, Disney says.

They have a two-way radio or a phone to call for help.

Disney employees also undergo safety training from day one on the job, as do their managers who are specially trained to help defuse the situations, according to Disney. The company did not provide details on the training for security reasons.

Disney security and deputy sheriffs also add an extra layer of protection.

And for workers who need mental health counseling, the company has a wellness assistance program that provides five free visits with a counselor.

Similar battery complaints have been filed at SeaWorld and Universal Orlando, too.

A man whose young daughter was too short to ride Journey to Atlantis pushed a SeaWorld employee in her stomach last year. The man didn’t realize the worker was pregnant, the sheriff’s report said.

A 23-year-old Parkland woman was arrested in 2015, although the battery charge was later dropped, when she yelled racial insults, grabbed a Universal employee’s arm twice and then tried to push past because she was told she couldn’t sit in the best seat on the Incredible Hulk Coaster.

“She really wanted to ride in the front row of the rollercoaster and was not going to allow anyone to deny her,” the Orlando police report said.

Staying cheerful is tough

The problem runs deeper than the theme parks and affects employees throughout the service industry at hotels, restaurants and call centers, one expert said.

“In an environment like that where often the customer is seen as always right _ and let’s face it, the customer is not always right _ there’s sometimes an expectation . that their wish is your command,” said David Ballard, a senior director at the American Psychological Association whose expertise is the workplace.

Disney calls employees “cast members,” as if they’re playing a role in a show. Keeping the cheerful facade on takes a toll, Ballard said.

“It takes a lot of energy to hold that in,” Ballard said. “Keeping that smile on your face, having that image the company wants you to convey _ that’s emotional labor.”

Sexual attacks

Assaults of a sexual nature have been reported, too.

In the Haunted Mansion, another popular ride at the Magic Kingdom, a man stared at a worker as he walked past. Then, he grabbed her crotch.

The woman “was stunned,” according to the 2015 report.

That’s inappropriate, she told him, and she was going to get security. He asked for her name instead.

The woman went backstage and sat on the floor, crying uncontrollably. What had happened triggered memories of when she had been raped as a child, the sheriff’s office report said.

Her manager found her sobbing and called security.

By then, the man who grabbed her had disappeared.

At the same attraction in June, a different employee said a 73-year-old Venezuelan man grabbed her breast twice in the “stretch room,” an area before visitors enter the ride.

She was so shocked, she said nothing.

Then, she told a co-worker and her coordinator.

The man and his family denied it happened.

The man was asked to leave Magic Kingdom but Disney gave him three FastPasses to use at Animal Kingdom the next day, the report said.

Take a breath

Don’t get Lauren Abdul wrong. She loves her job. She returned to Disney after working in the company’s College Program and never left.

Five out of six times, her interactions with visitors bring her joy, which makes her love her job even more, she said.

But sometimes, it feels like the bad outweighs the good, Abdul said, as she recounted when a visitor hit her at the Tomorrowland Speedway or recently cussed her out over FastPasses at Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.

Once, someone spit on her, she said. She hasn’t filed a report with law enforcement.

“I have to literally take a breath,” said Abdul, 24. “There have been times where I’ve been at work, and I’ve asked to get a bathroom break. I’ve had to just sit in the bathroom for five minutes because it adds up during the day.”

About Gabrielle Russon

Russon wrote this for the Orlando Sentinel

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