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, “Life After Disney,” we’ll shine the spotlight on two more former cast member businesses this week.
When you have a grandfather who spent 13 years in film distribution for Walt Disney, there is a good chance you’re going to play a role or 10 as a Disney cast member, and that’s exactly what Jonny did.
Jonny grew up visiting the Disney Parks in Orlando and California, and his love for the rides and the shows stayed with him. When the opportunity to spend 8 months working overseas at Tokyo Disney Resort came in 2007, Jonny’s “inner nerd” couldn’t refuse. He then spent 9 months as a cast member at Disneyland Paris in 2009 before landing a summer contract at Disney’s California Adventure.
By October 2010, he transitioned to Walt Disney World and spent the next nine years in a full time role at “Beauty and the Beast – Live on Stage.” He also performed in “Celebrate the Season” holiday show for three years; helped create “Mickey’s Most Merriest Celebration” and “Villains Mix and Mingle;” covered all of the male ensemble roles as a chorus stepping out entertainment swing in various shows; and was part of two filmings of the “Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade” with Lady A (formerly Lady Antebellum), Debbie Ryan, and Ryan Seacrest.
Disney Event Group Special Events also found a place on Jonny’s resume as part of the team for the Club Villain event and the Disney’s Hollywood Studios 30th Anniversary Cavalcade. In 2019, he took a temporary assignment as a facilitator on the Disney Traditions team, welcoming thousands of new cast members to Walt Disney World and teaching College Program and General Employment Traditions classes for Walt Disney World Resort and Disney Cruise Line.
Jonny has performed for millions of people over the course of his career. “Being a part of so many magical memories kept me loving my job and the happiness it brought to so many people,” he says. “I’ve made lifelong friends and have a Disney family that doesn’t stop existing just because we’re no longer working there.”
As of Dec. 30, 2020, Jonny will join all Equity performers in a mass layoff from the company. But he began transitioning to new work in early March, putting a slight twist on his first name with the debut of Jonnies Apparel custom shoe design and custom apparel.
“My original product line was custom printed men’s bathing suits with an emphasis on the LGBTQ market, as well as a line of underwear, T-shirts and accessories,” Jonny says of his company’s early days. “Unfortunately, weeks before I was going to start manufacturing on the first collection, we were put on leave, the financing fell through, and the factory was closed indefinitely due to the pandemic.”
But that wasn’t enough to keep him down. Instead, he shifted the business, built on his social media following, and learned some new techniques to enhance his art and graphic design skills. “Money was tight, so to practice I went to my own closet and started pulling out shoes and getting inspiration. I tried to never just replicate something I had already done. Every shoe was a chance to learn something new, practice a new technique, and find my own ways of creating the effects I had in mind.”
Why did Jonny choose shoe design? “I’m a huge sneaker fan and I’m known for rocking some fun and crazy shoes,” he admits. “It clicked that I could start learning how to customize sneakers and it allowed me to not have to purchase an inventory, as everything is made-to-order using new shoes or restoring people’s favorite pair to give them a new life as a one-of-a-kind creation.”
The response has been incredible for these labor-intensive works of art. A custom pair of shoes can take anywhere from 4 hours for a simple recolor or airbrush project, and 30 hours or more on projects with multiple design elements, hand-laid 3D effects, or hand-painted elements.
Jonny’s time at Disney has paid off in this new venture. He learned the importance of good customer service and how to stand behind the work he does, and, as a Traditions teacher and live performer, he learned to be innovative, a skill that shows in his unique wearable art.
Jonnies Apparel specializes in shoe restoration, and it also features custom T-shirts, hoodies, and denim vests. To commission a pair of shoes or apparel, or to view the gallery, visit JonniesApparel.com.
Exceptional dining is a huge part of many Walt Disney World visitors’ vacation experience, and Melissa knows a lot about making each meal special. She began her time with Disney in 2006, as a food and beverage quick-service hostess at Sunset Market Ranch in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, as part of the Disney College Program. It was the start of much bigger things.
Melissa moved on to roles as sous chef at Cinderella’s Royal Table in Magic Kingdom, Citrico’s at Disney’s Grand Floridian resort, and also for Park Event Operations and Disney’s Flower & Garden Festival at Epcot, just to name a few.
In May 2019, she joined the team at Disney’s All-Star Music resort. “My daily role was leading my culinary team of amazing cast members at Disney’s All-Star Music resort, maintaining daily operations at our food court, teaching and engaging my cast in food safety procedures, and helping developing our culinary cast into future sous chefs,” she says.
Melissa enjoyed her role until her 8 years with the company came to a temporary halt when she was furloughed in 2020. But that didn’t put an end to her desire to bring fabulous food to appreciative diners. She started Chef Melissa, a virtual restaurant featuring restaurant-quality meals. Seasonally-inspired menu selections change weekly (each Sunday), and every meal is delivered chilled and ready to re-heat.
These are no ordinary ready-made meals, either. Examples of Chef Melissa’s weekly offerings include:
- Steak Oscar: 6-ounce beef filet topped with crab cake and Béarnaise sauce, with roasted asparagus
- Chicken Scallopini: pan-seared chicken breast sautéed in mushroom cream sauce, with rosemary and garlic
- Seared Lamb Chops: served over braised white bean stew and topped with caramelized onion jam
- Pan Seared Salmon with cranberry butter: served over quinoa and zucchini ribbons
Add a healthful salad, or opt for a delicious appetizer such as chilled shrimp cocktail or spinach dip with crudités.
Not content with serving main courses and sides, Chef Melissa also creates holiday cupcake and cookie decorating kits, the ideal way to bring the family together for a festive activity at an affordable price. It’s a good idea to pre-order these, as they are deservedly popular!
Did Melissa’s time at Disney help her in this new venture? Absolutely! “Because of years spent with my guests, offering many different styles of dining, I understand how we celebrate with food,” she says. “Holidays and milestone moments in life are often marked with a special meal or treat. Our guests still want that special meal and that holiday sweet; they just needed a new way to find it.”
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!