The Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) has regained its footing as Orange County’s largest employer following the pandemic that shuttered its Anaheim theme parks for over a year and temporarily slashed its local workforce by nearly two-thirds.
The Burbank-based company employed 34,000 employees—or cast members, as Disney refers to its workers—as of last month. That marks an increase from before the pandemic hit OC in March 2020, when Walt Disney employed about 32,000 in the region.
The 34,000 workers are the most the company has reported ever employing at its area theme parks, hotels and related business units. Local Disney jobs represent about 2% of OC’s total workforce.
“As Walt Disney once said, ‘You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it requires people to make the dream a reality,’” Disneyland Resort President Ken Potrock said in a statement provided to the Business Journal. “I’m grateful that we’ve welcomed back so many of our cast members since reopening.”
Walt Disney’s 36% jump was the second largest reported on the Business Journal’s annual list of the largest OC employers. It was one of 15 companies on the list that reported adding to their ranks over the past year.
Overall, the 45 companies on the list, each with more than 1,597 local workers, increased local staff numbers by about 6,400, or 2.9%, to a cumulative 232,216.
About a third of the entries on the list did not provide current job counts and are Business Journal estimates.
Headwinds on the Horizon
The list represents the first total increase seen for OC in three years, though it’s not clear whether that trend will continue next year.
A looming recession and inflationary pressures have prompted many firms to reconsider their workforce needs as they enter 2023. Economists at California State University, Fullerton expect Orange County will see slower job growth, 0.4%, and higher unemployment next year.
“For the next two years, the picture is going to be tough,” CSUF economist Anil Puri said in his annual forecast.
The 2022 payroll job growth in OC is projected to be 3.8%, according to CSUF estimates, nearly 1% higher than the boost seen on this week’s list.
About 1.7 million people are currently employed in OC, and the area counted an unemployment rate of 2.7% as of September, according to state figures.
See the Nov. 7 print edition of the Business Journal for more on CSUF’s 2023 economic forecast.
Walt Disney was forced to effectively shutter the bulk of its Orange County operations in 2020, with its two theme parks—Disneyland and Disney California Adventure—remaining closed for 13 months. Its Downtown Disney shopping district and three hotels were also severely impacted.
Disney has made a steady return to business since reopening its local business last year; its employee count of 34,000 is up from about 10,000 local employees one year ago.
Disney is ramping up reasons to become a cast member of the firm that employs 200,000 worldwide.
CSUF, along with its biggest feeder school, Fullerton College, this year joined the Disney Aspire program, which covers tuition for all Disney employees that attend a college in the program’s network.
CSUF is the first university that Disney Aspire participants can attend in person.
“Our holistic approach to supporting [employee] wellbeing includes affordable childcare, investing in professional development with college tuition paid upfront through Disney Aspire and exclusive cast experiences that only Disney can create,” Potrock said. “These are among the many perks that make us an employer of choice.”
UCI’s Physical Expansion
The University of California, Irvine replaced Walt Disney Co. last year as the top employer in the region, but has returned to the second slot after seeing its employee count slip 5% to 24,867.
Its headcount is still ahead of 2019 levels as the firm plots a largely healthcare-focused expansion in the region.
The organization last month opened the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute, the 21,432-square-foot flagship clinic within the new Susan & Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences’ 110,000-square-foot complex at the university on the corner of California Avenue and Michael Drake Drive.
Other parts of the college include the School of Medicine, the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing, the planned School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and the planned School of Population and Public Health.
UCI is also building a 144-bed acute care hospital, cancer center and the Joe C. Wen & Family Center for Advanced Care at its under-construction UCI Health-Irvine campus along Jamboree Road. That development has a $1.3 billion price tag.
On the inpatient front, UCI Health recently won city planning approvals for a 52-bed, 69,750-square-foot convalescent facility at the Irvine Concourse campus.
The project, called the UCI Health Rehabilitation Hospital, is expected to average 42 patients and would be open around-the-clock. It will employ about 200 people.
Healthcare organizations have flourished over the past two years, and that’s reflected on this year’s list, with eight companies featured on the list. Five of those reported employment counts which were up from the year prior, while three were flat.
Leading local growth in the sector is Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, which moved up a slot to No. 6 after posting a nearly 17% increase in staff to 7,888.
Hoag is currently expanding its Irvine campus, which opened in 2010.
It acquired the Irvine hospital facility and adjacent land parcels last year for $226 million; the first phase of the expansion, expected to cost $653 million, is now well underway and will feature inpatient and outpatient centers for cancer, digestive and women’s services.
The largest increase seen in this year’s list was the 39% growth reported by newcomer Parker Aerospace; the Cleveland-based firm is OC’s sixth-largest aerospace and defense contractor.
The company counts a staff of 1,716 out of its Irvine base, which holds its Military Flight Controls Division and Fluid Systems Divisions.
It jumped in size after its parent company’s completed purchase of U.K. giant Meggitt PLC, which also has substantial operations in Irvine.
Parker also recently landed a $444 million U.S. military contract that will lead to additional local hires in the years ahead.