Actors Equity Disney Dispute Threatens Savi’s Workshop’s Future

More than any other topic, we’ve received questions about why Savi’s Workshop did not open with the rest of Galaxy’s Edge. While social distancing was initially blamed, the actual reason is a bit more complicated. After conversations with cast members, we’ve learned the Savi’s situation goes well beyond keeping six feet from guests. The Actors Equity Disney dispute is the core problem.

NOTE: Our sources spoke to us on the condition of anonimity due to the on-going union dispute (more below).

Legacy Lightsabers

When Galaxy’s Edge reopened on July 15th, “Star Wars Land” was mostly the same. Sure, social distancing measures were in place to keep guests and local Batuuans safe, but the experiences were largely unchanged with one large exception. Savi’s Workshop reopened but as a glorified basement extension of Dok-Ondar’s Den of Antiquities, selling legacy lightsabers.

The courtyard of Savi’s Workshop, now with social distancing markers

While this change has made Dok-Ondar’s easier to experience in an era of social distancing, it has disappointed many fans. Sure, going into the famed workshop to get a look around is fun, but the magic of the original experience is gone. We knew Disney was making the best of a bad situation, but not one fully caused by COVID-19. The on-going dispute with the Actor’s Equity Association is at the root of the issue.

Recalled…and then not

The timeline begins in late June. On June 23rd, Disney sent recall notices to many furloughed members of the local Actor’s Equity Association. Actor’s Equity is the union that represents stage performers and managers of the live shows at Disney World. It is the same union that represents New York City based performers on Broadway. The day after the recall, new cases of COVID-19 spiked in Florida to a then-record 5,508.

As part of the negotiations for the recall, Actor’s Equity had requested regular testing for its members covered by Disney. Given the difficulty of obtaining quick response testing, Disney did not agree. The union initially agreed to this reasoning but reversed course after the June 24th spike in cases. The next day, June 25th, Equity released a statement calling for Disney to postpone the reopening of the parks as they had in California. This public statement caused Disney to reverse course quickly and cancel the actors’ recall as negotiations continued.

Different Than Disneyland

If you’re wondering what an actor’s union dispute has to do with Savi’s, that’s understandable. The key here is Kembe, the leader of the Savi’s Workshop experience. At Disneyland in California, Kembe doesn’t exist. The show is performed by a trained merchandise cast member. The script is different, and the experience changes a bit. But those changes are key and why the experience in Florida has not simply switched over to the Disneyland version.

As is common in the entertainment industry, the rights to the script and show are under contract. Disney owns the overarching intellectual property for Star Wars, but the Savi’s Workshop script and overall concept contract prevents Disney from making anything but minor changes or replacing the Kembe performer without changing the name and concept completely. This is due to the contract between the union and Disney requiring two weeks notice. This is fairly standard with most jobs, particularly ones with unions.

Will Disney pull the plug?

Disney has options. As this dispute with Actor’s Equity continues, major changes have happened or are rumored to be coming, but haven’t happened yet. In the case of the Disney Junior show, the name changed from “Disney Junior Dance Party” to “Disney Junior Play and Dance” and the Equity performers replaced with a third-party DJ.

According to our sources, the Voyage of the Little Mermaid was not part of the Phase 1 reopening, so actors were never recalled. For the show to be canceled, they would have to be notified and that has yet to happen.

With Savi’s Workshop, Disney has more than the obvious “people spending money” financial incentive to keep the show alive for now. Our sources indicated the Florida version of the show significantly outperforms the California version due to the script and actors’ performances. It allows 50% more shows per hour. At $200 per lightsaber, that adds up very quickly. Shows like Disney Junior or stage performances like Beauty and the Beast or Frozen don’t generate revenue, so cutting them is simpler.

Actors disputing their own union

Another key point in the Savi’s Workshop struggle is many of the actors, including multiple Kembes, disagree with the union’s stance on the issue. A few days ago, a group of actors released a video called #BringBacktheMagic. The actors in question feel Disney has done enough to keep them safe. They’re ready to go back to work and are worried their jobs will be lost forever if the union continues to dig in their heels.

The union’s legal grievance against Disney is currently at a standstill. Neither side has hired the necessary arbitrator to move the process forward. Disney is clearly moving forward with changing some shows, so it’s only a matter of time before Savi’s sees a more permanent change. Disney is clearly trying to avoid that with the Dok-Ondar’s temporary location situation, but how long that lasts is anyone’s guess.

Why is Actors Equity doing this?

It’s easy to paint Equity as the villain here, and it’s just as easy to make Disney the evil corporation refusing to care about its employees’ safety. Neither party is perfect but given that every other union signed off on Disney’s safety protocols, Equity comes off looking a little worse for wear here. The sticking point may be that Equity also represents performers on Broadway.

Disney has been a part of Broadway for decades now, beginning with Beauty and the Beast. All of Broadway has shuttered, for now, causing millions in lost revenue for producers and theaters. If Disney and Equity came to an agreement and reopened shows without specific protocols in place, it could be used as legal justification in New York. The situations could not be more different, due to Disney’s ability to make social distancing changes to things like break and dressing rooms that can’t happen in New York. Still, Actor’s Equity is likely thinking about the larger picture.

This larger picture unfortunately benefits actors and performers in New York who are paid on a completely different scale than performers in the Disney parks in Florida. This is further compounded by the ongoing issues with Florida’s unemployment system. The union has stepped in to help financially, but when some of their members have yet to receive any benefits from the state the gap grows larger.

What’s next?

As things stand, Savi’s Workshop will remain Dok-Ondar’s basement. The concern is that when Disney pulls a plug on a show, it tends to stay pulled forever. For a similar example, look at Stitch’s Great Escape at the Magic Kingdom. The attraction was shuttered, but converted to a character meet-and-greet location with Stitch. Recently, Disney confirmed the attraction was shuttered forever. Rumors persist it is being retooled with a Wreck-It Ralph theme, but those are just rumors for now.

Can Savi’s be saved? Certainly. Our sources tell us the public’s dissatisfaction with the conversion of Savi’s to Dok’s basement is keeping the show alive. The financial incentive doesn’t hurt either. Legacy lightsabers were meant to be a stopgap, and hopefully, that’s all they will be.

To help save Savi’s Workshop, our sources have suggested fans make Disney aware of their desire to return on social media. The more public pressure there is on Disney, the more likely they are to keep a retooling at bay while they negotiate with Actor’s Equity. With that in mind, we at Edge of the Galaxy invite you to use the hashtags #SaveSavis and #BringBacktheMagic to let Disney and Actor’s Equity know just how much you want to see Kembe and the Gatherers return.

The Force is still strong with Savi’s, but you may be the only hope. #SaveSavis #BringBacktheMagic

Adam Soucie
Adam has been a Star Wars fan for as long as he can remember, dating back to watching the original trilogy on VHS and collecting his first action figures with the Power of the Force launch in 1995. His favorite character is Kanan Jarrus, and his favorite piece of Star Wars is the Rebels animated series.

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