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Why Disney World’s newest show is causing controversy

While battling the Actors Equity Association over how to safely bring performers back to work, Disney World recently replaced the longrunning “Beauty and the Beast — Live on Stage” show with an actor-less production

In this March 16, 2020, file photo, the entrance to the parking lot at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World is closed in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Upon reopening in July, Walt Disney World has been in a dispute with the Actors’ Equity Association over safety protocols.
AP

While battling the Actors’ Equity Association over how to safely bring performers back to work, Disney World recently replaced the longrunning “Beauty and the Beast — Live on Stage” show with an actor-less production.

Following the COVID-19 shutdown, Disney World reopened in July, reaching return-to-work agreements with multiple unions, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

But the Actors’ Equity Association — which represents 750 performers at Disney World — would not sign a “memorandum of understanding” that detailed safety guidelines for performers, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

The labor union — which represents more than 50,000 professional actors and stage managers nationwide — called for Disney to offer regular COVID-19 testing for performers and to allow actors to wear masks. Disney declined both options, according to the Orlando Sentinel, emphasizing the safety protocols already in place.

Except for two theaters in Massachusetts, the union has not yet allowed its members to accept contracts for live productions in the country — Broadway remains shut down until at least Jan. 3, 2021, and established traditions like the Utah Shakespeare Festival have been affected by this mandate.

“It’s going to take time to develop proper safety protocols for live theater, and until we have those protocols in place, it’s just not safe for you to work,” the union said in a letter sent out to its membership on May 12, the Deseret News reported.

Amid this conflict, Walt Disney World canceled back-to-work notices for Equity performers — an action the union considers retaliatory and not allowed under its contract with Disney, which runs through 2022, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Disney World has since gone on to revamp a bird-show attraction at Animal Kingdom, replacing Equity actors with Disney employees who are “animal behavior specialists,” Deadline reported.

On Sunday, the company also revamped its “Beauty and the Beast” show. In the new 20-minute production, called “The Disney Society Orchestra and Friends,” six musicians play classic Disney tunes. For the finale, non-Equity Disney employees dressed as Belle, the Beast, Mrs. Potts, Lumiere, Cogsworth and Chip quietly take the stage and wave goodbye to the audience, according to Deadline.

“Did Walt Disney World also buy the FastPass for union busting when it reopened the parks?” Brandon Lorenz, Communications Director at Actors’ Equity, said in a statement to Deadline. “It is deeply disappointing that Disney has locked performers out, after Walt Disney World refused to allow masks and testing for performers, a lower safety standard than so many other park workers.”

In response, a Disney spokesperson told Deadline that seven unions had signed agreements.

“The Actors’ Equity rejected our safety protocols and have not made themselves available to continue negotiations, which is unfortunate,” the spokesperson said. “We are exercising our right to open without Equity performers.”

The union filed a grievance, and the two sides are expected to start discussions this week, according to Deadline.

Some Disney World performers who are a part of the Actors’ Equity Association are asking the union to drop the fight with Disney over safety precautions, believing it puts their jobs at risk, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“While we appreciate our union’s efforts on our behalf, we strongly believe that Disney has taken the necessary safety precautions for a phase one reopening, and that we deserve a voice in the assessment of these new protocols,” the group said in a statement, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Other Disney World shows that use Equity actors performers, like “Voyage of the Little Mermaid,” “Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular” and “Finding Nemo — The Musical,” remain closed, according to the Orlando Sentinel.