Understaffing at Disneyland may have damaged Small World

2021-12-25 02:02:13 By : Mr. Jack Peng

Over 500,000 lights are added to It's a Small World for its holiday re-theme.

The holidays have been in full swing at Disneyland since early in November — but one crucial element of the celebration has been missing that entire time. It’s a Small World, the dark ride featuring 240 animatronic dolls singing the world’s least-forgettable song, has been closed indefinitely since a flood on Nov. 10 significantly damaged its machinery.

The ride is likely to reopen next week, according to the Orange County Register, after 75 cast members from 20 departments worked around the clock to repair the massive damage to the underground room that controls the ride. 

There has been wide speculation that human error led to the damage. The incident happened overnight, as the ride was being refilled for its scheduled November 11 reopening for Disneyland’s first-ever Merriest Nites holiday party. 

Disneyland has been silent on how the flood happened, and did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Writer David Koenig, who writes extensively about Disney, claims to have information from inside sources about what happened.  

“Cast members I’ve heard from say the damage is far worse than Disney is letting on,” he tweeted on Nov. 18. “Apparently, the Small World flume began leaking when it was being filled in the early hours of last Wednesday Nov. 10. The problem was not discovered until several hours later. By that time, water had filled up the basement levels of the attraction and the basement stockroom for the adjacent Small World Toyshop.”

Later, Koenig followed up with another report:  

“A new Small World leaker confirms FloodGate was indeed human error,” Koenig tweeted on Nov. 20. “‘They forgot to shut a valve. To make things worse an alarm was sounding for over 90 minutes for an urgent pump failure (probably the pump that got overwhelmed & could no longer pump water from electrical vault) … ‘Water boiled and was sent up and out through conduit. It was nuts. A lot damaged.’”

It's a Small World Holiday will open this week after its unforeseen closure.

Staffing has been a significant issue at Disneyland since the park reopened on April 30 from its pandemic closure. The resort has been operating with a reduced number of cast members, which has impacted everything from dining availability to shopping lines to, yes, ride maintenance. 

During the company’s fiscal third-quarter earnings call in August, Disney CFO Christine McCarthy said, “We’re expecting to have our parks domestically be fully staffed up by the end of this calendar year.” 

However, as the OC Register reported in October, Disneyland is still operating with thousands fewer employees than it had before the pandemic. “Disneyland has added 15,000 employees to its workforce in the six months since returning from an extended COVID-19 pandemic closure,” Brady MacDonald wrote. 

But MacDonald noted that Disneyland's staff by that point was still 7,000 less than its pre-pandemic amount of 32,000.

It stands to reason that having less staff on hand — or staff that was newer and less experienced — could have contributed to the flood. If what Koenig says is true — that an alarm was sounding for 90 minutes while It’s a Small World filled with water — it’s likely no one was around to hear it, or that the people who did hear it didn’t know the alarm was a problem. 

The ride opened at Disneyland in 1966, and didn’t have its first holiday overlay until 1997, when the ride closed for several weeks for a massive overhaul that included new costumes, new songs and holiday decor. 

Now, the makeover still requires several weeks of work, which mainly happens with overnight crews. 

Small World Holiday at Disneyland

In 2018, McDonald, again writing for the OC Register, noted that Disneyland veteran Joe Peters required 18 days and a "36-person team of scenic designers, riggers, electricians and painters" to set up the holiday overlay for the ride.

Disneyland fans have anecdotally observed more ride breakdowns than usual over the last few months, especially for the more technologically complex rides like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. “#disney - slowing losing the magic out here in California,” @hokiegal88 tweeted on November 18. “Wait in line for quite some time and then the ride breaks down. no fast pass options are given. spending more time in line waiting on a broken down line than riding rides. #Disneyland #californiaadventure”

Last month, Southern California News Group reporter Brian Rokos gave an account of being trapped on a broken-down Pirates of the Caribbean for more than 90 minutes. “There’s no way I was going to be able to get out,” he said. “Someone suggested that I should walk the plank, but I had no plank to walk! I had no idea how to get off … We were literally trapped.”

Personally, on my last two Disneyland visits in November, I experienced eight ride breakdowns when I was either in line or on a ride, some of which resulted in being given passes for other rides. Some others did not.

On the day of writing this story, 16 rides had temporarily broken down by 12 p.m., according to Twitter account @DLStats, which tracks park status.

On the Disney Careers website, three maintenance roles were listed on Dec. 2. 

— Disneyland fans: Now is the time to unite against Genie Plus

— Planning a Disneyland trip is more complicated than it's ever been

— This 2-hour video is one of the best Disney investigations ever

— Did staffing problems cause the massive shutdown of It’s A Small World?

— The best (and worst) foods at DCA's Festival of Holidays

— Today’s Disneyland is a price gouge, not a magical experience

Get insider access to all things Happiest Place on Earth, from historical deep dives to trending park news and beyond. Sign up for our Dispatches from Disneyland newsletter here.

Julie Tremaine is a contributing editor for SFGATE covering Disneyland.