Just outside the entrance to Disney World sit dozens of motels along Florida’s Highway 192.
But the people who stay are not tourists visiting Orlando’s famous theme parks, but homeless people who have found they have no place else to go.
Disney closed Walt Disney World, its flagship theme park resort because of the global pandemic on March 16 and has recently opened with only fraction of the daily visitors allowed.
But the lack of tourists to the area is having a detrimental effect on those who relied on the Disney dollars providing safe and stable jobs for locals.
Struggling motel owners have begun renting their rooms out to the only customers they can find: those who have nowhere else to go.
Anthony, a single father of two, sits in a stairwell at the Palm Motel down the road from Disney World in Kissimmee, Florida. Anthony is a chef in Old Town, a tourist hub in Kissimmee but since the COVID-19 pandemic he has had his work hours go from full-time to just two days a week
Victor Augustin, 32, a father of eight, stands in hallway at the The Clarion Inn & Suites Kissimmee. Augustin has a cleaning company with his wife and he also worked in construction at Universal Orlando Resort. All of his work has dried up during the COVID-19 pandemic. He is currently living in motels for two weeks at a time with his eight children and wife
Barbie Austria, 58, the director of the Kissimmee Poinciana Homeless Outreach, works tirelessly and without pay to help place homeless families in hotels across Kissimmee
The Magic Castle Inn and Suites in Kissimmee, Florida was the set for Sean Baker’s gritty movie The Florida Project, which told of the day-to-day struggles of two residents of the motel that sits just outside the Disney World Resort
The motels sit along Florida’s Highway 192, which is the roadway to Disney World. They have become shelters of last resort in Kissimmee, where there is a low-income housing shortage
Kissimmee does not have a single operating homeless shelter, so many people without resources end up in cheap motels. Pictured, Barbie Austria, in the red t-shirt, director of the Kissimmee Poinciana Homeless Outreach is attempting to help those who have found themselves forced to live in motels
Barbie Austria, in red, director of the Kissimmee Poinciana Homeless Outreach, along with other volunteers delivers meals to homeless guests at a Studio 6 Motel in Kissimmee
Barbie Austria, far left, is the director of the Kissimmee Poinciana Homeless Outreach. She is working tirelessly and without pay to help place homeless families in motels across Kissimmee. She says the pandemic has created an unprecedented need in the community
A destination that bills itself as ‘the most magical place on earth’, is feeling anything but.
After losing their jobs, it appears hundreds were forced to leave their homes. Dozens are now living in inexpensive motels for two weeks at a time while they try and work out what their next move should be, and hoping against hope that some form of normality might soon return.
Anthony, a single father of two is currently residing at the Palm Motel down the road from Disney World in Kissimmee, Florida.
He was a chef in Old Town, a tourist hub in Kissimmee but since the COVID-19 pandemic he has had his work hours go from full-time to just two days a week
‘This is no place to your kids, but here are people here that are just trying to get by like the rest of us,’ he told DailyMail.com.
‘I am living paycheck to paycheck. I can’t even save $100. We can’t get the tourists to come in and out so it limits the hours that we can work and unfortunately because I was the highest paid at the restaurant where I work, I was the first to get cut. Sometimes I am out of the door by 8pm instead of midnight. I only work on the busiest days of the work now.’
Another resident, Victor Augustin, 32, a father-of-eight, used to run a cleaning company with his wife while also working in construction at the Universal Orlando Resort.
All of his work has dried up during the COVID-19 pandemic and he is now currently living in motels for two weeks at a time with his entire family.
‘A lot of people got laid off. It has been a struggle. I have eight kids and for two years we were stuck in one room together. Now we have two rooms but it is depressing. I can’t afford to even do anything for my kids,’ Augustin said to DailyMail.com.
‘Think about school supplies or clothing for the year. It makes me depressed. It makes our family stressed out. Everybody bickers about everything because of what we go through.’
Austria, in red t-shirt, runs a charity, Homeless Ministry Partnering with Poinciana Church. She says The Palm Motel is one of many deteriorating hotels on the roadway just outside Disney World where now many tourism industry workers are now living
Austria, right, is pictured with volunteers. Some of the workers now living in the motels once worked at Disney World, Universal Studios and other tourist attraction in the Orlando area. Now these folks live in motel rooms and pay nightly
The motels recently introduced a two-week maximum rule so that people could not stay more than 14 days and claim residency which would then require the owners to obtain an eviction order to force them to leave.
Photographer Zak Bennett visited some of the families living in the ‘decrepit’ motels.
‘It’s a really sad scene there. There’s not a single shelter in the city, so locals without resources end up in motels along the highway leading to Disney. Some people call it the ‘roadway to dreams,” he told DailyMail.com.
‘It was a complete shock walking into some of these motels. It felt like a third world country and it was hard to believe witnessing people’s struggles like this.
‘Most of the people I met lost their work during COVID. They had mostly regular lives before it struck. For many people, Orlando has simply shut down.’
One resident who has been stuck in a motel is Rose Jusino. She vented her frustration to the Washington Post.
‘The economy just keeps going up, up, up, and the minimum wage is staying the same. So how do they expect people to be able to pay their rent and pay for their car? That’s why more people are ending up in these hotels. There’s not enough resources out there to help us be able to help ourselves.’
Osceola County, where Disney World sits, does not have a single homeless shelter. Most furloughed employees in the area who might already have been living paycheck to paycheck who have been unemployed for almost seven months are now left with only motels as their only option.
Homeless families are finding places to live at motels until the tourist industry rebounds. Last week, Disney announced an additional 28,000 layoffs. The motels are likely to see even more local residents staying in its rooms
Motels along Florida’s Highway 192, which is the roadway to Disney World, have become shelters or a last resort in Kissimmee, where there is a low-income housing shortage
Bennett says that it is hard for those involved to see a way forward while tourism remains non-existent and the theme parks are only allowing a tiny percentage of their normal footfall.
‘These people just can’t get ahead. Orlando has relied on tourism for so long that these folks are left with no options and they’re stuck in the middle of Florida. It seems that Orlando as a city doesn’t want to have anyone that doesn’t currently work in the industry which is possibly why there’s no affordable housing in the area and no homeless shelters in the region.’
Although the residents are not out on the street and do have a roof over their head for now, with no sign of tourists returning any time soon, their future is an uncertain one.
‘A lot of these people feel hopeless, they feel very deeply that they are in the thick of this pandemic. They are paying nightly for their hotels. Every single penny goes towards their accommodation. Anything they earn from work goes towards the motel and they are left with nothing with no way to save anything at the end of each month,’ says Bennett.
A GoFundMe page has been set up to help those affected.
The contrast between the Disney’s Magic Kingdom just a few miles away and the Magic Castle Inn & Suites couldn’t be more marked
Outside the Palm Motel and Paradise Inn where countless homeless families have come to live right down the street from Disney World in Kissimmee. Hotels don’t allow guests for longer than two weeks to avoid guests claiming residency
Disney is laying off around 28,000 employees across its US theme parks, experiences and consumer products segment as prolonged closures and limited attendance have decimated profits.It’s Florida resort is shown above on re-opening day in July
More bad news hit the workers of Disney last week as Josh D’Amaro, the Walt Disney Company Chairman of Parks, Experiences and Products, announced that 28,000 workers — known as ‘cast members’ — would be laid off across the Disney Company.
Prolonged park closures and limited attendance have decimated its theme park business.
The announcement was made in a letter to employees on Tuesday which referenced several ‘difficult decisions’ the company has been forced to make amid the ongoing pandemic.
One such decision includes ending the furlough of thousands of employees in its parks, experiences and products segment.
Around 67 seven percent of the 28,000 layoffs were part-time workers, but they ranged from salaried employees to nonunion hourly workers, Disney officials said.
Emily Lartigue, the founder of The Cast Member Pantry, is pictured inside the pantry warehouse, which is being operated out of a storage unit near Orlando, Florida
The food has been donated by volunteers along with cash donations to enable the pantry to stock up on supplies
The Cast Member Pantry offers a place where furloughed and laid off employees of Disney can go and choose the food items they need, including toiletries like toothpaste, soap and shampoo
But ever since the employees were furloughed, 28-year-old Emily Lartigue started the Cast Member Pantry, a food bank aimed at serving the workers who have now been laid off.
The food bank operates out of a small storage unit in Windermere, Florida just outside of Orlando where the organization says they are flanked with volunteers wanting to help all hours of the day.
Some of the volunteers are also part of the same furloughed ‘cast member’ community that they are serving.
Lartigue began collecting extra stockpile of groceries in her own home and as it grew, she quickly started reaching out to local storage facilities to see if she could afford the monthly rent payment until a generous company learned of what she was doing and offered her the first two months rent-free.
The Pantry officially opened on March 6, 2020, before the furloughs began taking place.
Appointments are set up with cast members who come to the storage unit and do their own shopping from the available items.
Now that the furloughs and layoff have begun, the demand has more than tripled. Instead, the produce is loaded into the trunks of cars with members no longer having to step inside the storage unit.
Alissa Huff, who works in Disney’s live entertainment had been furloughed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and is still waiting for a call to come back to work.
‘It’s a waiting game at this point,’ Huff told DailyMail.com. ‘A lot of Disney workers were working paycheck to paycheck before cover, so not having the extra cushion to help fill the gaps has been hard,’ she explained. ‘None of us expected it to last this long. We all thought we’d be back working in the summer.’
‘We are trying to figure out what our future is going to look like, so at least having something like Cast Member Pantry we know we can get a bag of groceries for the week. That provides a lot of peace,’ Huff said.
The Cast Member Pantry headquarters is operated out of a large storage unit in Windermere near Orlando
Volunteers help run the pantry and help unpack newly arrived stock ready for members to come and collect
The Cast Member Pantry officially opened on March 6, 2020, before the furloughs actually began taking place
Volunteers fill grocery bags for laid off and furloughed Disney cast members at The Cast Member Pantry near Orlando
The pantry started out by setting up appointments with cast members who then came to the storage unit and did their own shopping from the available items on the shelves
The pantry is extremely popular and has so far had more than 7,000 visits from furloughed or laid-off Disney workers
Steve Wilcox, 28, is a one of the directors of the Cast Member Pantry.
He had been furloughed but has just returned to work at Disney. Now, coupled with the recent layoffs, the pantry is gearing up to feed even more ex-Disney cast members but he appears confident the tight-knit Disney cast member community will try and take care of one another in these times of need.
‘We’ve helped thousands of cast members over the past few months and we expect that number to keep growing,’ Wilcox told DailyMail.com
‘One special thing about working for Disney is that we are one big family. You can definitely feel that sense of community and that we are all in this together,’ he said. ‘We are always here to help each other, especially those who were affected this week.’
‘Given the announcements last week we do expect an uptick. So we highly encourage those cast members who were affect by those layoffs to take advantage of our services,’ said Wilcox.
The most popular grocery items ares pasta, cereal, grab & go snacks, canned tuna, canned chicken, canned vegetables, canned beans, and soups .
Each bag of groceries has a set number of items in it including approximately $40-$50 worth of non-perishable food and should feed a family of four for 4-5 days.
Cast members are able to come and pick up groceries every 30 days so long as they are still furloughed or laid off.
The mosts popular grocery items are pasta and sauce, cereal, grab & go snacks, canned tuna, canned chicken, canned vegetables, canned beans and soups
The produce is all places into environmentally friendly cotton bags which can be easily reused on subsequent visits
Each bag has a set number of items in it including approximately $40-$50 worth of non-perishable food and should feed a family of four for 4-5 days
Cast members can come and get groceries every 30 days as long as they are still furloughed or laid off
The Cast Member Pantry has accepted single donations from people as well as local businesses who have helped them out
Photographer Zak Bennett went to take a look at the Cast Pantry for himself and was surprised at the compact nature of the operation.
‘The pantry is working out of a somewhat small storage unit in a neighborhood storage unit. I expected to see a much larger operation based on the amount of people they are feeding each week,’ Bennett said.
‘It’s apparent that Disney cast members really care about each other and feel like a family. They really want to help each other make it through this crisis, so Disney can hopefully one-day regroup its workforce.
‘The operation is a very tight-knit ship. The volunteer crews are able pack countless bags in an hour’s time and then it’s onto the next shift of eager volunteers. Emily, the founder, told me they are stacked with volunteers, but always need more hands and donations.’
The Cast Member Pantry has so far accepted single donations from people as well as local businesses who have graciously helped them out. Each week costs the pantry around $5,000 in produce.
The Cast Member Pantry is currently open to all furloughed cast members. Emails should be sent to [email protected]
On average, the pantry spend about $5,000-a-week on groceries during their busier weeks
The Cast Member Pantry is currently open to all furloughed cast members who can email to arrange an appointment
The team put together bags of groceries each week for cast members to come to pick up at scheduled times
The organizers of the Cast Pantry believe that demand for their services will only increase after last weeks layoffs
DISNEY REDUNDANCY LETTER IN FULL
I write this note to you today to share some difficult decisions that we have had to make regarding our Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products organization.
Let me start with my belief that the heart and soul of our business is and always will be people. Just like all of you, I love what I do. I also love being surrounded by people who think about their roles as more than jobs, but as opportunities to be a part of something special, something different, and something truly magical.
Earlier this year, in response to the pandemic, we were forced to close our businesses around the world. Few of us could have imagined how significantly the pandemic would impact us — both at work and in our daily lives. We initially hoped that this situation would be short-lived, and that we would recover quickly and return to normal. Seven months later, we find that has not been the case. And, as a result, today we are now forced to reduce the size of our team across executive, salaried, and hourly roles.
As you can imagine, a decision of this magnitude is not easy. For the last several months, our management team has worked tirelessly to avoid having to separate anyone from the company. We’ve cut expenses, suspended capital projects, furloughed our cast members while still paying benefits, and modified our operations to run as efficiently as possible, however, we simply cannot responsibly stay fully staffed while operating at such limited capacity.
As heartbreaking as it is to take this action, this is the only feasible option we have in light of the prolonged impact of COVID-19 on our business, including limited capacity due to physical distancing requirements and the continued uncertainty regarding the duration of the pandemic.
Thank you for your dedication, patience and understanding during these difficult times. I know that these changes will be challenging. It will take time for all of us to process this information and its impact. We will be scheduling appointments with our affected salaried and non-union hourly employees over the next few days. Additionally, today we will begin the process of discussing next steps with unions. We encourage you to visit The Hub or the WDI Homepage for any support you may need.
For those who will be affected by this decision, I want to thank you for all that you have done for our company and our guests. While we don’t know when the pandemic will be behind us, we are confident in our resilience, and hope to welcome back Cast Members and employees when we can.