‘I didn’t make it’

A Walt Disney World waitress struggles to hold on to her middle-class life amid a pandemic and catastrophic layoff

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Flaviana Decker at Walt Disney World's Cinderella Castle in 2000, the year she moved to the United States permanently from Brazil — a lifelong dream. (Flaviana Decker)

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Flaviana was on staff at Disney's Old Key West Resort in 2006 for a few months before she transferred to the park's Ohana restaurant at the Polynesian Village Resort, where she worked for 14 years. (Flaviana Decker)

ORLANDO — “Dear Cast Member,” the late October layoff notice began.

Flaviana Decker, 44, retreated to her living room couch and tried to stop her tears before her eldest daughter, due home from school any second, burst through the door. Her 14-year career as a Walt Disney World waitress was over.

“I’m crying,” Flaviana texted her fellow servers. “Is anyone else?”

“I’m angry, so I haven’t gotten to the crying phase,” responded one friend who felt hurt by Disney’s decision to restore temporary cuts to its top executives’ salaries just weeks before axing more than 28,000 of its lowest-wage workers. Others were stung that their years, and in some cases decades, of service to a company that they loved had ended with an impersonal email.

Flaviana said she felt “robbed and sad” that her Disney job was gone.
Flaviana said she felt “robbed and sad” that her Disney job was gone.

“They could have at least used our name,” one server wrote.

“That’s all we are, just a number,” another added.

Flaviana wasn’t angry at Disney. She was too scared for her girls and herself to be anything other than worried. “I wish I could be at work,” she typed.

Her job waiting tables at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort had sustained her through the painful end of her marriage and the struggles of being a single parent to two teenage girls, one of whom is autistic and struggles with basic motor skills and speaking. Throughout the summer and fall as lawmakers were fighting over an economic relief bill and the number of coronavirus cases was climbing, Flaviana was scouring the Disney fan blogs for glimmers of hope that the tourists might be returning. But the once famously long lines at Disney World remained short even as Orlando’s free food lines, packed with laid-off hotel and theme park workers, grew longer. All the while Flaviana’s unemployment checks shrank from more than $800 a week in July to $247 a week in October, which didn’t even cover her rent.

The hardest parts for Flaviana were accepting the reality that her Disney job was gone; that the modest middle-class life that she had built was no longer sustainable; that she wouldn’t be able to provide Victoria, a bright and imaginative teenager whose autism made everyday tasks difficult, with the classes and therapists that enabled her to learn and share her thoughts and feelings.

She felt “robbed and sad.” She cried in the shower so that her daughters wouldn’t see. She asked her mom in Pedro Leopoldo, Brazil, to pray for her but didn’t tell her that she had been laid off. “She’s on the other side of the world. I don’t want her to worry,” Flaviana said. “What can she do? She’s not going to change the outcome.”

The stress left her with a pain in her stomach that never seemed to go away.

The only people in whom she confided were her fellow servers from Ohana, her restaurant at Disney’s Polynesian resort, who had kept in touch through a group text chain that they named the “corona crew.”

Late at night when her mind was racing and her daughters were asleep in their room across the hall, Flaviana would text the group asking if anyone was up.

“Go back to bed,” urged one friend a few days after their separations were finalized.

“I’m worried about you,” another friend wrote.

“I’m worried about myself,” Flaviana typed.

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Flaviana and her daughters Gabriela, 15, on left, and Victoria, 14, eat dinner Nov. 20 at their apartment in Orlando.

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Flaviana prepares dinner for her daughters.

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Flaviana helps Victoria practice the piano at their home.

“The most magical place on Earth,” as Disney World bills itself, had by late fall become a place overwhelmed by an unprecedented number of individual crises. In late September, Disney announced that it was terminating 28,000 cast members, most of them at its theme parks in Orlando and Anaheim, Calif. Then, the day before Thanksgiving, with business still lagging, Disney added another 4,000 workers to the tally, boosting the total losses to 32,000. The cuts fell heaviest on part-time employees, many of whom held multiple jobs or, like Flaviana, regularly picked up extra shifts and worked full-time hours.

Their pain was evident in Facebook groups, such as “Cast Members Supporting Cast Members” and “Ear for Each Other,” where laid-off Disney workers sold homemade trinkets, advertised side hustles, and struggled with the hard facts of what their lives and their country had become.

“I’ve paid rent for November, [but] I’m completely out of money,” wrote one Disney worker. “Can’t pay my phone bill, electric bill or car insurance this month.”

“Prayers for a miracle,” added another Disney employee. “My car goes out for repossession 11/12.”

“Covid, you have RUINED EVERYTHING!!!” wrote a third.

For Orlando, the pandemic has been devastating. Theme parks are operating at one-third of their normal capacity. Thousands of convention workers and banquet hall servers have gone months without paying mortgages, car payments or rent. Budget motels that once served tourists from all over the world now struggle to get by as a shelter of last resort for homeless families.

Some of the desperation has played out behind closed doors in quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods. “We once lived really comfortably,” said the wife of a Disney bus driver who on a recent Saturday was selling off her Christmas decorations, her grandchildren’s toys and her furniture to pay for food, power and rent. “Now we scrape and we borrow and we plead.” She disinfected the day’s haul — three $20 bills — with Lysol and stuck them in her pocket.

Food lines offered the most public view of the need. They also laid bare the city’s class and racial divisions. There was a discreet, appointment-only food pantry in an upscale neighborhood that served mostly Disney executives and engineers. Disney’s laid-off musicians, dancers and actors flocked to a line at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, where the free food was accompanied by live performances.

The Society of St. Andrew and Unite Here 737 hospitality workers union operate a food line Oct. 24 at a temporarily shuttered motel not far from Walt Disney World's main gate.
The Society of St. Andrew and Unite Here 737 hospitality workers union operate a food line Oct. 24 at a temporarily shuttered motel not far from Walt Disney World's main gate.

Longtime veterans of recently canceled shows, such as “Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular!” and “Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue,” gathered under an oak tree in the parking lot.

A few laid-off Disney performers ambled past in witch’s garb on their way to entertain the growing line of cars. “We’re the Oven Coven!” they said. They joined a middle-aged man sweating through a rainbow unicorn outfit and a clown teetering on stilts. A musician belted “Lean on Me.”

“It’s a slaughterhouse,” said Andrea Canny, who came to Orlando in 1991 to play Belle in a “Beauty and the Beast” stage show before transitioning to playing gargoyles and other character actor roles over the course of a three-decade career. “People are going to have to move back to their hometowns. There just aren’t enough jobs at Trader Joe’s and Target.”

The largest food line of all was one that the Society of St. Andrew and Unite Here 737 hospitality workers union ran at a temporarily shuttered motel not far from Disney’s main gate. On a recent Saturday, the first cars arrived around 3 a.m. — a laid-off housekeeper who had come to grab a box for herself and a friend who had lost her car, a former Magic Kingdom cashier who couldn’t sleep, a banquet server who had emigrated from Haiti in the early 1990s and was draining her 401(k) to pay her mortgage and care for her 12-year-old daughter. She’d applied for help from Florida’s child welfare agency but was told she earned too much money.

“What kind of country is this?” the woman asked, gazing out at growing line.

By 5:30 a.m., there were more than 250 cars in the parking lot. Old friends, who had not seen each other since March, caught up under the motel’s lights.

“My mom passed away a month ago,” Jesus Paz, a janitor, told his friend Carmen Alta, a cashier.

“Why didn’t you call me?” asked Alta, who had spent much of April intubated in the hospital with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

By 8 a.m., the line spilled more than a mile down Highway 192, past a pawnshop promising “Cash for Guns,” a Disney clearance outlet and the Congo River miniature golf course.

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A volunteer helps set up the Oct. 24 food line. The first cars arrived around 3 a.m.

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By 5:30 a.m., there were more than 250 cars in the parking lot to receive donated food.

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By 8 a.m., the line for food spilled more than a mile down Highway 192 in Kissimmee, Fla.

Flaviana’s friends, several of whom relied on the union food line, urged her to use it as well. But Flaviana worried that the food wouldn’t work with Victoria’s diet and told her friends she didn’t want to “waste” it. Her friends concluded that she was too proud, unwilling to admit that her life in America had reached the point where she needed to wait hours in line for food.

Flaviana had dreamed of living in the United States since she was a girl growing up in Brazil. “Maybe it was the movies,” she said. “Europe seemed old. America was new.” At 17, a high school exchange program placed her with a family in Rhode Island. She returned a few years later on a five-month Disney World internship and in 2000 moved to the United States permanently. She found work at an Olive Garden and then an upscale Italian restaurant before landing her Disney job in 2006 when her girls, Victoria, 14, and Gabriela, 15, were still in diapers.

As an exchange student, Flaviana had marveled that her biology teacher had been able to take his family to Disney, a place that seemed so out of reach in Rhode Island. Now her job came with a free year-round family pass to the park.

Four years later, when her marriage collapsed, the job gave her the time and money she needed to fight for Victoria. Since 2014, Flaviana and Victoria had spent a week each year in Austin, where they studied the “Rapid Prompting Method,” a technique that had enabled Victoria at 7 to share her first full thoughts with her mother. Her first words had been a revelation.

Victoria, who couldn’t speak, pointed at letters on a board, spelling out a story she had made up about a boy named Gus who blew bubbles as big as a house and traveled inside one of them to the White House at the invitation of President Barack Obama. Up until then, Flaviana hadn’t realized that Victoria could read; that she wasn’t locked away in her own world, but rather was bursting to communicate.

The annual trip and classes cost about $2,500 to $3,000 a year. Flaviana knew that if she was short money, she could always pick up a few extra shifts at Ohana. She worked most of the big holidays, which paid overtime, including the last 14 Thanksgivings in a row. Each year Walt Disney World raised the prices, and each year the guests kept coming. Flaviana’s tips grew more and more generous — 2019 was her best year ever.

“What could make this stop being so good?” she would sometimes think as she headed off around 5 a.m. to work her regular breakfast shift. A hurricane could shut Disney down for a week, but the company would quickly rebuild. A terrorist attack would be a big setback, but Disney and her job would survive, she reasoned.

The crowds would always return. Her restaurant would always be packed. Her job would always be safe.

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Flaviana and Victoria spend time on the couch together in their living room on Nov. 28.

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Flaviana helps Victoria sound out words at their home.

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Flaviana and Victoria dance together in their living room on Nov. 28.

Flaviana knew that her friends at work were worried about her. They overwhelmed her with well-meaning, unsolicited advice: She should get more sleep, consider anti-anxiety medication, meet them for a cocktail, take up baking, start looking for a job. Flaviana listened politely and mostly ignored them.

In early November, Flaviana and her girls met up with Desiree Jacobsen, who had also been laid off from Ohana, and Desiree’s husband and children at a Hawaiian shave ice shop in an upscale outdoor mall. On the way from the parking lot, Flaviana eyed an empty sushi place, a cavernous and deserted Gloria Estefan-themed restaurant and a gift shop that was advertising 50 percent off all merchandise. Palm trees swayed in a gentle warm breeze.

The United States had just set a single-day record for new coronavirus infections, surpassing 100,000 for the first time ever. By early December the daily toll would exceed 200,000. In Washington, President Trump was still insisting that he had defeated President-elect Joe Biden. “If you count the legal votes, I easily win,” he insisted at a White House news conference before storming off.

Flaviana’s mind was on more personal matters.

“We need some freaking tourists,” she half-jokingly complained.

“Yeah, but we don’t need their cooties,” Desiree replied.

Disney had promised that if the virus abated and the tourists returned, it would rehire workers in order of seniority through 2022 when the union contract expired. The list of just the laid-off servers ran 24 pages, 84 names per page, 1,944 unemployed waiters in all.

Desiree, 45, had been working at Disney’s Polynesian resort since she was 16. Her three decades of service landed her near the middle of Page 1. Flaviana’s name was on the bottom of Page 6.

Desiree’s mother had worked at the Polynesian, and Desiree had met her husband, who was also a Disney server, at the resort. At first, the layoff hurt her pride. “It makes you feel like you don’t matter,” she said.

Desiree Jacobsen was also laid off from her job at Ohana, at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, after three decades of service.
Desiree Jacobsen was also laid off from her job at Ohana, at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, after three decades of service.

As the weeks passed, her worry shifted to her bills. Her husband had been called back to work but was only earning about half of what he made during normal times. A good Disney server at a popular restaurant could earn $50,000 to $75,000 a year. Desiree had landed a seasonal job at Bath & Body Works, but it only paid $11 an hour. She picked up a bit more money gardening. But it wasn’t covering her expenses.

Days earlier, she and her husband had drained their savings account to pay the mortgage on the home they had purchased in 2018. Banks were letting customers skip payments, but Desiree was still anxious about falling behind and losing the house.

“What are we doing next?” she had texted her husband who was at work.

“Bankruptcy?” he replied.

Desiree called Flaviana in tears, but Flaviana had trouble mustering sympathy. “At least your husband is still working [at Disney],” Flaviana said.

The next morning, Desiree sent her a text: “I am sorry I was freaking out last night. I always get lost in my fears when I am doing my own bills.”

Now the two women were sitting in a booth across from each other reminiscing about the pre-pandemic days at Ohana: how packed the restaurant used to be, how Flaviana once accidentally set a guest’s “Sweet 16” birthday cupcake on fire; how good Flaviana was with disabled children who visited their restaurant; how easily they both could make their guests laugh.

“Are we ever going to do that again?” Flaviana asked.

“You’ve got to have faith,” Desiree replied.

Their children were smiling and joking in the neighboring booth. Desiree tried to gently nudge Flaviana to consider looking for a new job. “It’s a lot of fun at Bath & Body Works,” she said. A day earlier she had helped a customer find a scent that she had liked. “It felt a lot like Disney.”

“You’re great at customer service,” Flaviana said.

Earlier in the week, the check-engine light on Flaviana’s car — a 2009 Kia with 260,000 miles on it — had come back on. The state had discovered a mistake with her food stamps and was cutting her monthly allocation by $12 to $192 a month. Desiree, who volunteered at the union food line and took home a box for her family each week, urged Flaviana to reconsider using it. “We had chicken thighs last week,” she said. “I know you eat that.” But Flaviana was noncommittal.

Flaviana’s Ohana co-workers had become her surrogate family. They vacationed together in the summer and started their own traditions, coordinating and sewing homemade, Disney-themed costumes for “Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party.”

Shortly after the layoffs, Flaviana, Desiree and a dozen other Ohana servers met to turn in their uniforms and spend a last day in the park together, riding roller coasters, drinking and taking in a character parade.

“Ready, 1-2-3 … We love you!” they yelled through their cloth masks as Mickey and Minnie rolled down an empty Epcot street in an antique car. Flaviana and a laid-off Ohana friend, whose husband had also lost his hospitality job, held hands in one of the Epcot gift shops and cried together.

“It’s different for us,” the friend told her. “You and I are losing everything.”

One of the most demoralizing parts of the layoff for Flaviana was how isolated it made her feel. Unlike her co-workers, Flaviana didn’t have a husband with whom she could share the emotional and financial burden. She didn’t have family in the United States who could help her with the bills. None of her fellow laid-off servers at Ohana had a special-needs child — a term that Flaviana hated.

“Victoria has specific needs,” Flaviana often said. And meeting those needs took time, persistence and money.

“My victories have just started,” Victoria had said four years ago on her 10th birthday, pointing to the letters on her board. Flaviana asked her if she had anything else to say. “Try to respect young thinkers,” Victoria added. “Some have surreal minds and strong messages to share with the world … victories over silence.”

Flaviana’s mission was to make sure those victories continued. Victoria’s severe motor difficulties make it hard for her to perform tasks like cutting her food or tying her shoes. Flaviana was determined not to let those limitations prevent Victoria from having a meaningful life. She also wanted her eldest daughter, Gabriela, a diligent high school sophomore, to attend college.

“They don’t see the sacrifices I have to make,” Flaviana said of her Ohana friends. “They don’t see the mountains I have to jump.”

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Flaviana at Walt Disney World in August 2017 with her daughters Gabriela, left, and Victoria. (Flaviana Decker)

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Flaviana, Desiree and their children at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party in 2018. (Flaviana Decker)

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Shortly after the layoffs, Flaviana, Desiree and other Ohana servers met to turn in their uniforms and spend a last day in the park together. (Flaviana Decker)

Flaviana tried not to think too hard about what it would take for Disney World’s pre-pandemic guests to return. People would have to be able to afford to take a vacation. They would have to be willing to fly. They would need to get on crowded buses and check into hotel rooms. They would have to feel comfortable enough to sit surrounded by strangers in packed restaurants. And they would have to come by the tens of thousands.

For Flaviana, it was too much to consider. Instead, she gravitated toward a simpler solution, borne of personal desperation. She was convinced that if Trump won the election, he would ignore the virus, force open the economy and return her life to some semblance of what it had been before the pandemic.

In that life, Flaviana had cried four years earlier when Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. Back then, she had worried that Trump was anti-immigrant, anti-woman and interested only in helping the rich get even richer. She was especially upset that he had mocked a disabled reporter. “How can a person like that represent the most powerful country in the world?” Flaviana recalled thinking.

In 2020, Flaviana didn’t love either of the candidates. Her only concern was getting her Disney job back and providing for her daughters. “I can’t believe I am saying this,” Flaviana said, “but Trump has guts and he wants to get things open. That’s the best option for my family right now.”

As Trump’s prospects dimmed in the days after Election Day, Flaviana held on to the faint chance that he might somehow prevail. Her hopes were dashed on Nov. 7 when she glanced at her phone and saw the election was being called for Biden. She took a deep breath and then swallowed hard. A tear streaked her cheek.

“This sucks,” she said. “If Trump would’ve won, maybe this would’ve gone away.”

Before the pandemic, Flaviana would occasionally wait on tables of Brazilians who had just arrived in the United States but were already buying homes and starting businesses. In some cases, she recalled, they barely spoke English. Flaviana had been in Orlando for 20 years. She was still renting a two-bedroom apartment. Her 11-year-old Kia was always breaking down when she could least afford to fix it.

She wasn’t jealous, she said. She had obligations, especially to Victoria, that were beyond her control and bigger than any career.

Flaviana holds an old name tag.
Flaviana holds an old name tag.

“Is Disney a dream job? For me it was. I was around for my daughters,” she said. Still, she carried a nagging feeling that she had somehow failed. “I’ve been here for 20 years,” she said, “but I didn’t make it.”

Flaviana asked for advice writing a résumé on the “Ear For Each Other” Facebook page, and an insurance agent from Pennsylvania, who was monitoring the page, helped her with a first draft. A former Ohana manager agreed to write a letter of recommendation. “You are one of the most amazing people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” the manager wrote to her.

Flaviana had always seen herself as a person who seized opportunities. She came to the United States for the first time when she was just a teen. She had “fought like a lion” for Victoria, she said, proving wrong neurologists who told her that her daughter was permanently locked away in her own world and unable to communicate.

“Right now, I’m in an unfamiliar space and feel very defeated and frozen,” she said.

The day after the election was called for Biden, Flaviana met a laid-off Ohana friend for coffee at a sandwich shop near her apartment. Disney had announced that it would pay its laid-off employees their full salaries for November and December as required by a federal law called the Warn Act. Flaviana planned to use the money to catch up on her Internet, phone and electric bills. If she cut her spending to a bare minimum, if Congress passed another relief package in January, she could probably survive until late spring or early summer. By then, there probably would be a vaccine and maybe her restaurant would be open? Maybe Disney would hire her back?

There were so many ifs and one certainty that she confronted every time she considered looking for a new job. “I can’t make ends meet on $12 an hour,” she said.

“Have you looked into trade school?” asked Denni Myton, Flaviana’s Ohana friend. Myton was laid off too and was thinking of studying to be a phlebotomy technician or perhaps a dog groomer. Flaviana doubted that she had the time or money to go back to school.

“I have no skills,” she said.

“You’re stronger and better than you give yourself credit for being,” Myton replied.

“Not this time,” Flaviana responded.

Flaviana and her friends often said that they would do anything to get back to Disney and their old jobs at Ohana. If necessary, they would take temporary positions scooping ice cream, handing out popcorn on Main Street USA, sweeping the park. To Flaviana, Disney World embodied the best of the United States. Now she was struggling to accept that both the company and her adopted country — her American Dream — were something less than they had seemed.

“I just hate, hate not being connected to it,” Flaviana said of Disney.

“It’s who you become,” her friend agreed.

“It’s where I belong,” Flaviana replied.

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Flaviana and Gabriela clean up Nov. 20 after dinner at their home.

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Flaviana and Gabriela set up their Christmas tree on Nov. 28.

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Flaviana and Victoria hang ornaments on their Christmas tree on Nov. 28.

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

About this story

Design by Garland Potts; Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof; Copy editing by Sue Doyle

Greg Jaffe is a national political reporter for The Washington Post, where he has been since March 2009. Previously, he covered the White House, foreign policy and the U.S. military for The Post.