The Magic Kingdom Is Tragic for Workers
About ten years ago, Abigail Disney visited the amusement park that made her family a household name. When she got her tickets, there was a note shoved in alongside them. It read: “Help us.”
That was the beginning of a journey that culminates in the new film The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales. Disney, a filmmaker, philanthropist, and the granddaughter of Roy Disney, who co-founded The Walt Disney Company with his brother, chronicles the plight of employees at Disneyland who are struggling to live on meager pay and benefits, as well as her efforts to speak out against exorbitant CEO compensation and a corporate sector that has drifted far away from the stakeholder capitalism of decades gone by. “It takes people to run a business,” Roy Disney said in 1965, but today those people are seen as more like widgets.
“Workers at that park are some of the most important ambassadors for the brand,” Abigail Disney told me at an interview in a hotel lobby in North Hollywood. “So it stands to reason that they shouldn’t be miserable.”
After the “Help us” note, Disney received a Facebook message from Ralph, a janitor at Disneyland whose wife also works at the park. They and their four kids live with their mother-in-law, because two people with full-time jobs still don’t bring in enough at Disneyland to make it above the poverty line.
“The first time I answered him, I answered him kind of in a very unsatisfying way,” Disney said. “I was like, what can I do? I don’t have any influence and I don’t have a place in the company. But I have a Twitter feed and I have a last name. Teddy Roosevelt has this great line about do what you can with what you have where you are. That’s what sat with me and kept me awake at night when I sent that person that unsatisfying answer. And I had to write him a second time.”
At a roundtable discussion depicted in the film, “cast members” (Disney’s name for workers at the park) explained that they survive on food stamps, sleep in their cars, defer medical care and even having children because of the financial stress. There’s a clever juxtaposition in the film between a Republican congressmember going on about how workers across America are benefiting from prosperity and a food pantry that workers at Disney set up for their own colleagues.
Yet incredibly, nearly all of the cast members take extreme pride in their work, seeing the joy they help instill in visitors to the park. “You know Ralph says it best, he says, ‘We do the pixie dust at night,’” Disney said. “He’s a janitor, he cleans toilets, but he thinks of it as pixie dust. And part of what was enraging for me about it, having met these people and spent time with them, was any company would be so lucky. They should be thanking their lucky stars for these people. They are special.”
And the people profiled in American Dream are unionized workers in California, which has a minimum wage of $15 an hour for companies with more than 25 employees. In Florida, where Disney World sits at the other end of the Disney empire, the situation is even worse. (The film focuses on California because there was so much fear from Florida workers over talking to media.)
This is a function of a Wall Street–led way of doing business. At one point, the film points out that if Disney executives went against the grain and raised worker pay, investors would trash the stock. Disney’s trajectory mirrors the trajectory of corporate America since the Reagan Revolution: the consolidation of industry, the skyrocketing of executive pay, and the sacking of labor. The film describes what has really been a cultural shift, an evisceration of norms that say workers are a company’s most valuable resource, and that there is more to a company’s existence than a rapacious search for profits.
Disney recounted for me the entry of Michael Eisner into the company in 1984, at a time when it was struggling mightily. Eisner’s comeback brought forward iconic animation classics like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, but also this ruthless mindset. “Disney had swallowed that pill whole,” she said, “that labor is just a cost, it must be minimized, these are interchangeable cogs in a larger machine, it does not matter what they feel.” She highlighted the Disneyland cafeteria as a good symbol of this shift: It was once shimmering and grand, then it got worse, then it got outsourced, and finally workers were charged at the same rates visitors were at the park. “It’s just like the stripping, stripping, one thing at a time,” she said.
Before American Dream, Disney had produced the acclaimed documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, about Liberian anti-war activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, and produced and directed The Armor of Light, about an anti-abortion evangelical exposed to the realities of gun violence who challenges the dogma from his side. That experience comes through in this film, co-directed by Disney and Kathy Hughes, which weaves the history of corporate boldness (what is described as “an ideological takeover of American life”) with the continuing precarity of Disneyland workers through furloughs at the park during the pandemic, as stocks soared.
Getting this to the screen was tortuous. There aren’t many sacred cows in American film, but criticizing the company that sells about two out of every five dollars in movie tickets is one of them. “The animators wouldn’t work with us, the distributors wouldn’t work with us, the theaters wouldn’t,” Disney told me. “They either want to work with Disney, used to work with Disney, or just don’t want to piss Disney off. And Disney is actually quite well known to be a really mean-spirited company that will come for you.”
Despite that, The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales was the number one documentary on iTunes in its release week. “The fact that we’ve done this well is a miracle,” Disney said, though the broader impact has yet to be determined. The message that a beloved company is working its employees to the bone might easily be drowned out by that same company’s latest Marvel Universe release.
We’ve heard a lot of this before, but in the hands of someone with that last name, it’s striking. “I think in history, it’s the apostates,” Disney said. “Like Angelina Grimké going north and saying, ‘I give up my inheritance because slavery is wrong.’ There’s something that gets you down to your heart when somebody does that. Which is why I’m doing what I’m doing because apostates are important.”
She does recognize that she’s not a particularly powerful apostate. When she writes then-CEO Bob Iger in the film, asking him to change his framework for worker wages and CEO pay, she concedes that she wasn’t expecting much. And, she acknowledges, there’s more to the problem than just pay—Anaheim is just an unaffordable place to live for workers of any sort, speaking to a failure of housing policy.
But just exposing the incredible influence Disney has, and what it’s been willing to do with that power, is enlightening. The city of Anaheim floated a $500 million bond to build a parking lot for Disneyland, which it leases to the company for $1 a year. Another measure, since reversed, gave up the right to tax Disney under any circumstances. A survey of park workers showed that Iger, at the time of filming, made 2,000 times more than one of the company’s custodians. During the pandemic, Iger and some other executives made a show out of giving up their salary, but the board of directors quietly gave it back to them.
Finally, of course, getting to know these park employees, the incredible strain they’re put under, and how ultimately some of them have to leave a job they love to make ends meet, is powerful. It’s part of why there are stirrings of a cultural shift back toward a stakeholder model. The Inflation Reduction Act included a minimum tax on large corporations and funded the IRS to actually do its job at collecting what is owed.
Abigail Disney is appropriately skeptical that the paradigm has been upended. After all, we’re likely headed into a recession, where we’ll hear more about the need to tighten our belts and relieve the burdens on business. But she sticks to a simple message. “If you can’t afford to pay a living wage, you can’t afford to hire a person,” she said. “Because a person is a person, not a fungible cost. Not someone who costs this much on a good day and that much on a bad day.”
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