By Sean Mussenden

Walt Disney World is in the midst of a major expansion of its part-time work force, a cost-cutting measure that will make it harder for low-wage tourism workers to build a full-time career at the giant resort.

In the past decade, the number of part-timers at Disney's parks and hotels has grown nearly 10 times faster than the number of full-timers, part of a national trend toward temporary work.

Now, in an effort to increase profits in its rebounding theme-park division by reducing labor costs, the region's largest employer has signaled plans to bring in even more part-timers to operate rides, dress up as Mickey and Minnie, and clean hotel rooms.

"You want to have a good mix of full-time and part-time workers. Obviously full-time workers cost more than part-time workers, and you don't need everyone who works for you planning to work five or six days a week," said Disney World Senior Vice President Jerry Montgomery.

Disney, like many companies, does not offer its part-timers health coverage or a retirement plan, and worker advocates fear the company's strategy ultimately will deprive thousands of full-time-job seekers of those benefits.

An increase in part-time jobs, the advocates argue, also will leave Disney with a less committed work force that turns over more frequently, something they say could hurt the company's bottom line.

"These are the people who are supposed to be presenting the smiling face of the parks," said Joe Condo, president of the Service Trades Council, a group of six unions representing 22,000 hotel and theme-park workers, about 40 percent of all Disney employees.

Part-timers at Disney put in less than 25 hours per week, or work more than 25 hours per week less than seven months of the year. They include students in Disney's College Program and seasonal workers.

The federal government's definition of part-time workers -- a person working up to 35 hours per week -- would cover some full-time Disney employees, the bulk of whom are guaranteed only 32 hours per week.

As Walt Disney World has grown during the past 33 years, the balance of full-time and part-time employees has constantly evolved, with the number of part-timers increasing during peak times of the year.

Since 1994, Disney has added 9,400 part-time employees -- an increase of 140 percent -- while adding 5,000 full-timers -- an increase of 15 percent. A decade ago, part-timers made up 17 percent of Disney's work force. Today, 30 percent of the 53,800 employees are part-timers.

Now, their ranks are poised to grow even more.

Under the terms of Disney's new employment contract with the Service Trades Council, the company is allowed to use part-timers for 35 percent of all hours worked in union jobs.

Last year, though, the company used part-timers for only 21 percent of those hours, according to union officials with access to company data.

During negotiations for the new, three-year employment contract with the unions earlier this year, company officials signaled to union leaders their intention to move much closer to the 35 percent cap in the next few years.

Disney also pushed to increase the part-timer cap to 40 percent. Company negotiators backed off that demand only after the unions promised not to file a federal labor complaint against Disney if the company went above 35 percent in the last year of the contract.

Disney declined to comment on specific percentages, but there are signs that the increases already have begun.

Between mid-June and the start of the holiday season this year -- two of Disney's busiest times -- the total number of employees increased by 200 to 53,800. During that period, the company added 1,200 part-timers while cutting the number of full-time jobs by 1,000.

Disney executives said they had no plans to lay off full-timers as they increase the number of part-time employees; part-timers would fill newly created positions or replace full-timers who leave, they said.

Ultimately, that could make it harder for full-time job seekers to do what Barbara Williams did 30 years ago -- begin a long career at Disney's Contemporary Resort.

Her job -- serving food alongside Mickey Mouse at character breakfasts -- isn't always glamorous, she said. But it offers health care, a pension and decent tips.

"You don't go around bragging that you wait tables, but it's an honest living," she said. "Once we're dead, there will be fewer full-timers, that's for sure."

Human-resource experts said Disney is not alone in its part-time push.

National labor statistics show the number of people working part time has increased 22 percent in the past 15 years, while full-time workers have gone up 16 percent. The growth in the number of part-time jobs could be even larger, because someone working two part-time jobs could be considered a full-timer.

And overwhelming anecdotal evidence shows that more and more companies are going Disney's route, said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a human-resources consulting firm.

"If you think back 20 years, it seemed that most everyone worked for a company on a full-time permanent basis. The way people work with organizations has been transformed," he said.

While part-timers allow more flexibility -- a crucial element for the seasonal theme-park business -- Challenger said companies need to be aware of the tradeoffs. "There are issues of quality of work, commitment of people to the organization," and pay issues, he said.

Walt Disney World President Al Weiss, in a brief interview last week, said such issues are not as pressing to Disney's "unique" part-time work force.

The bulk of Disney's part-timers, he said, are people who want to work shorter hours for personal reasons or are students in Disney's College Program angling for a permanent management position with the company.

"We find them to be among our most motivated workers," he said.

Weiss said there were no current plans to extend health-care benefits to part-timers.

A Disney spokesman suggested that typical Disney part-timers do not need health-care benefits because they are students covered by their parents' insurance or adults covered by their spouses' plans.

Nationally, 28 percent of all part-time workers are covered by a family member's health plan, according to census statistics.

Another 28 percent are covered by their own employers. Most of the rest are on government health-care plans or are uninsured.

Gina McCormick started out at Disney as a part-timer last year to earn extra money for her family. She didn't need health insurance because she was covered by her husband's employer. When they split, she suddenly needed full-time work and health coverage.

She found it quickly, a full-time slot working on the train at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

"Most people couldn't believe I got a full-time job so quick," she said. Since then, she has seen a number of former full-time positions in her work area remain open. "They're filling the time with part-timers. It does cut their costs, which is why we don't understand why they don't want to pay us more," she said.

Disney executives have told Wall Street that overcoming increases in labor costs will be key to expanding profit margins in the parks and resorts division.

Last month, Disney significantly increased health-care premiums for 22,000 Service Trades Council union workers -- more than doubling weekly payments in some cases. "The company has made promises to Wall Street," said Paul Kim, an analyst who tracks the Walt Disney Co. for New York-based Tradition Asiel Securities. "One way they [make good on those promises] is to significantly trim their biggest expenses through increased health premiums or cuts in full-time costs."