Nothing can keep a Disney cast member down for long, including the gut-punch of furloughs and lay-offs during a global pandemic. Instead, they’re creating businesses of their own.
More than 15,500 Walt Disney World Resort cast members have been laid off or furloughed as the pandemic continues. As part of an exclusive Attractions Magazine series, we’ll shine the spotlight on two more former cast member businesses this week.
Virtual Santa USA
March 12, 1992 was a good day for James Stronger. It marked the start of his 29-year career as a Disney cast member, starting with a role as an attractions host at then-Disney-MGM Studios. He transitioned to the Disney Institute in 1997, a path that eventually led to his role as senior facilitator with Disney Youth Education College Edition (YES).
James grew up visiting the theme parks, and his love for Disney paralleled his strong interest (“obsession,” he admits) in performing. But life threw a little detour in, and he joined the U.S. Navy after graduating from high school. A second happy twist came while he was stationed on Admirals Staff in Washington, D.C., where he met Teresa, the woman who would become his wife.
The couple was sent to Scotland through Teresa’s active duty, and it was during that time that James worked in the Base Recreation Department and, as he says, he “accidentally became a professional magician.” It was a skill that would change their destiny when they returned to the U.S. in 1991 and decided over the dinner table that their next adventure would include working at Walt Disney World. In 1992, James was hired as a cast member at The Great Movie Ride, and in 1995 Teresa became a server at Liberty Tree Tavern in the Magic Kingdom.
In 2020, James was furloughed due to the global pandemic. There is an excellent chance his role as a senior facilitator for the YES program will return, but in the meantime, there are bills to pay and food to put on the table. And what better way to make that possible than returning to his youthful obsession with performing?
James’s first opportunity to “portray Santa Claus” came 15 years ago, and he and Teresa created a seasonal sideline from that, serving high-end clients and corporations during the holidays. But COVID-19 threw a slight wrench into the works, and their business model had to adjust.
James says, “I simply was responding to the need to be able to provide Santa visits and experiences for the children and families that won’t be able to see Mr. and Mrs. Claus in the same ways that they have before. Now we will be maintaining the needed social distance to keep everyone safe. Even so, that still leaves out many families who cannot see Santa in person. It was clear to us that we needed to be able to provide a virtual alternative.”
Virtual Santa U.S.A. was the outcome, and James explains the concept well: “Children today are so much more technologically savvy. They have embraced doing activities and interacting via Zoom and other streaming platforms far faster than some of us more ‘seasoned’ folks. It essentially was just a choice to move in the direction that they were already headed. What I really like about this specific use of the emerging technology is that it still allows for a very personal, individualized experience. It’s not a Zoom session with 20-100 participants. It’s just Santa or Mrs. Claus with this one child or family. In many ways, it has advantages over the traditional in-person Santa visit at the mall.”
How does it work? Mom, Dad, or any adult with a child or children they love, passes along relevant information about the children when they make a booking. Then, magically, during a live Zoom online visit, Santa or Mrs. Claus know everyone’s names, their favorite Christmas songs, and what each child is hoping to find on Christmas morning. And it’s all captured on video for the group to watch and share again and again.
Participants can choose from three packages—the Sugar Cookie Package with a bedtime story from Mrs. Claus; the Reindeer Package, including a personalized virtual visit with Santa, an Official Nice List Certificate, a 10-minute video, and a reading by Santa of “The Night Before Christmas;” or the North Pole Package, which adds more time to the experience, plus a keepsake photo and presentation folder signed by Santa.
Lights of Winter LLC
“The Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights” went through several enhancements, two sponsors, and a name change over its 20-year run at Walt Disney World Resort, but one thing remained constant, and that was the display’s power to inspire joy in the people who viewed it.
It also inspired a youngster who, many years later, would transition from his role as a Disney cast member into the role of owner of Lights of Winter LLC.
Nick Rogers has indulged his love for lighting displays ever since he was a child, in part due to his family’s Christmastime weekend treks to Disney’s Hollywood Studios to view “The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.” He never forgot the look of happiness on the faces of people around him, and he never forgot the cast members who helped make the “Disney magic.”
From the time he turned 18, Nick wanted to be a cast member, and in 2013 he scored his first role. After a short time away from the company, he returned and was given the role of front line supervisor at Port Orleans French Quarter resort, where he acted as the middle-man between management and cast, handled guest complains when they arose, helped ensure operations were running efficiently, and came up with events such as special pizza parties so that the resort’s cast members knew they were appreciated.
For six years, he enjoyed the responsibilities and challenges of his role, until his official notice of lay-off came as Disney dealt with the realities of the pandemic. The time had come for him to transition what had been a hobby into a full-fledged business, and Lights of Winter LLC custom lighting displays, dancing lights, and custom garland creations came into being.
Nick remembers his first job from a paying client. It started with a man who saw a light display Nick had done, asked if he could have his own house decorated, and said he was happy to pay. “He has a massive house,” Nick recalls. “He has, basically, a castle to decorate, and it’s so fun because I’d never used a lift until I did his house. It took three or four days to do, and it ended up working pretty well. It’s really fun building all these lights and seeing the reactions people have when it’s done. That’s kind of why I worked at Disney. I love making people happy, and Lights plays into that.”
That happiness took a personal turn when Nick created a light show with several songs that held great meaning to him and that “special someone” in his life. When the light show “broke” as they were viewing it, Nick went inside to “fix” it, but in reality he grabbed a boot filled with sand, which hid an engagement ring. “There is a saying in Africa,” he reveals, “that once you step foot on the continent of Africa you can never shake the dust from your boots. So I [proposed, saying,] ‘I never want to shake the dust from my boots. Will you marry me?’”
Those are the kinds of memories he now makes for others, and with his intense passion for detail, his work reflects his own version of “the Disney difference.” Each display or elaborate seasonal garland is custom cut for precision and a perfect fit.
Lights of Winter LLC started with one display. Two years ago, it went to three displays, last year it did seven, and this year it’s up to almost 30, in large part due to the fantastic support of the Ear For Each Other private Facebook group that connects former cast members with clients. Because of the group, Nick has so much work this season that he has hired more people to help get the jobs done.
Although his Christmas schedule is full for 2020, Nick is currently giving estimates for next year, and he also decorates all year long. Want a specialized display for Valentine’s Day, spring, summer, Fourth of July, fall, Halloween? Whatever the occasion, Lights of Winter LLC has it covered.
Online groups such as Ear For Each Other have provided networks for Central Florida’s newest entrepreneurs to support and inspire each other, but anyone who has been touched by the magic that cast members are well known for making can support them as well. Attractions Magazine will feature cast members’ businesses weekly, so be sure to check back often and seek out these talented people!