Shanghai Disneyland has been open for almost two years now and reading through reviews online several critiques I often see are regarding the attitude and quality of staff. Having worked in attractions and guest services for over 13 years at Disney in a number of roles, interacting with a number of different individuals, I can say based on my experience that the Shanghai Disneyland cast are some of the hardest working frontline cast members on Earth.
Shanghai Disney Resort had a number of foreign task force managers who came to help get the resort up and running, teaching the local leadership the ropes and passing on advice and years of experience. This also included introducing local management to basic theme park operations; ideas like rotations and position standards.
A rotation is a list of positions that a cast member goes through during their day, typically spending around 15 to 20 minutes in each position before going on break. For example, an attraction rotation could include positions like attraction greeter, load platform 1, load platform 2, unload platform 1, unload platform 2, guest with disabilities assistance and ending in break. A typical rotation length would be anywhere between an hour and a half to two hours depending on the number of cast in the area and whether people are on lunch or just on break. After going to break the cast member returns to the top of the rotation and bumps the person at that position, sending them to the next position on the list. This was how Disney handled position assignment for decades until CDS, Cast Deployment System. Rotations are used by cast members and area management to keep track of cast members and ensure that they do not stay in one position for too long, to keep them fresh, and ensure proper rest period allocation.
Another equally important term to talk about when discussing scheduling and cast member functions is position standards. Position standards are created by area management and sent to scheduling so they know when a position should start and end. That way scheduling knows how many cast members to schedule in a day. So using our attractions example, maybe we want our greeter, load platform 1 and unload platform 1 position to open with the park and close with the park. However, we want our other positions to come online at different times, maybe an hour after park open or an hour before park close. We can further customize it so positions are only scheduled based on attendance forecasts or park hours. Once received scheduling takes this information along with the attendance forecasting and park hours to create schedules for the cast.
Despite their best attempts to encourage local management to use rotations and position standards several departments decided to ignore these suggestions and instead just schedule people and positions on a whim. This led to cast members not knowing their schedules or days-off until at best a week, if not days or even 24 hours before the start of a shift on a regular basis.
And while this caused quite an inconvenience to the cast members the true harm came with the lack of rotations and improper scheduling. Instead of being allowed to rotate or have regular breaks throughout the day cast members were forced to staff their location until the next shift came in, sometimes up to 4 or 5 hours. In other words, there were no breakers scheduled to provide rest periods to the cast members.
Four months after the grand opening during one of my shifts, a cast member from another department approached me out in front of the entrance to the park as I was refilling maps, her pants wet, crying. “Sir, may I please go to costuming and change my costume?” It was a perfectly clear day. She clearly did not get wet from rain. I assumed a guest must have spilled something on her. “What happened?” I replied. “I would rather not say.” “Well, I’m not your line manager, but we can find your leader and ask them, how does that sound?” So we contacted her manager. The manager agreed to let her go change and as long as she went back to her position afterwards. Later I discovered from one of her co-worker friends that she had relieved herself while standing at her position. I could not believe what I heard. It was confirmed not only by other cast members, but I also found out that this was not the first time nor the first cast member to relieve themselves at their position. In fact on a regular basis cast members were being threatened with disciplinary action by some leads (associate managers) and managers to stay in their location during high demand times for up to 5 hours without a break. When I approached the area manager regarding this disturbing trend I was told they never got any complaints and to mind my own business. Later, when the issue was brought up by a member of the task force to both the area manager and scheduling, they were sent a scathing email lambasting them for also “sticking their nose in where it didn’t belong.”
Now labor laws are different in every country and while China does not have the best record or regulation regarding labor laws, in general Disney did a very good job following Chinese law. While Chinese labor law does not give specific times regarding the allocation of breaks and meal periods, in general most workplaces provide breaks based on the following: after 2 hours of work the first 15 minute break is given, the meal period after another 2 hours and the final 15 minute break 2 hours prior to the end of the shift. However, the departments I saw had no standard instead deciding to lump all of the breaks in to a one-hour rest period one hour before the end of the cast member’s shift.
Indeed the frontline cast members at opening of Shanghai Disney were some of the most willing to please cast members I had ever seen. They would happily do any task that was asked of them, willingly volunteer for additional tasks and even work at home, off the clock. They willingly stood at those positions for hours without a break because they believed in the Disney spirit and what they had been told during Traditions, the company orientation, that they were part of something bigger, creating happiness for countless people, and some just wanted to please their bosses. Even months after the opening they continued to exude enthusiasm and a passion for what they were doing. It was only after the crowds thinned out, operating hours diminished, but the scheduling and lack of proper break allocation did not change that some cast members began to feel disappointed and disillusioned. As one cast member told me in private, “I never imagined Disney management would be like those managers I see on TV (referring to some of the exposes regarding working conditions at some sweatshop factories). I should be allowed to use the restroom during my shift, right? Even the scalpers and trinket sellers get that.”
So what happened and how could this have been avoided? Again it comes down to leadership. Some leaders refused to see what was occurring and simply ignored it as the problem would usually resolve itself with the cast member quitting. There was a simple lack of foresight by the local leadership to understand the best way of scheduling and positioning cast members. They did not wish to listen to the advice of the task force and instead wanted to try things their way. The task force obliged believing that it was better to cooperate and try things the “distinctly Chinese” way. However, when it was clear things were not working out, local management decided it was easier to keep the status quo than to change. This left many cast members burnt out having to be stationed at one position for 5 to 6 hours, frustrated and feeling disrespected, not able to know their future schedule until days before and embarrassed when being denied the simple request to use a restroom. In the end it comes down to the integrity of the local leadership. If local leadership more earnestly listened to the advice of the task force and spent more time actively considering the issue of scheduling and position rotation, many of these issues would have never happened. As is far too common in some organizations, there is a lack of accountability and therefore I argue it comes back to integrity. Hiring leaders of good character who will put best practices into use and strive to improve the group they lead and the organization as a whole.
On a positive note, I have heard things have improved on the scheduling front and cast members are receiving more timely and regular schedules. However, I still hear of incidents of cast members manning their locations for hours without a break and sneaking off when no one is looking to use the restroom or get a drink of water.