View Original Notice ? Disneyland employees’ economic plight spotlighted in new Sundance documentary
A new Sundance Film Festival documentary contrasts the economic plight of Disneyland employees and the Disney company’s financial success as emblematic symbols of American financial inequality and corporate greed.
“T??he American Dream and Other Fairy Tales” by documentary filmmaker, philanthropist and social activist Abigail Disney debuted Monday, Jan. 24 at the Sundance Film Festival, which was moved online due to COVID-19 concerns.
The documentary’s message: Disneyland and the Disney company epitomize the widening inequality in the United States and the moral breakdown of corporate America.
Abigail Disney — the daughter of former Disney senior executive Roy E. Disney and granddaughter of Disney company co-founder Roy O. Disney — has long been a critic of Disney CEO compensation and the company’s treatment of its cast members, Disney parlance for employees.
“The well-being and aspirations of our employees and cast will always be our top priority,” according to a statement by a Disney company spokesperson. “We provide a leading and holistic employment package that includes competitive pay and comprehensive benefits for our cast members to grow their careers and care for their families. That starts with fair pay and leading entry wages, but also includes affordable medical coverage, access to tuition-free higher education, subsidized childcare for eligible employees, as well as pathways for personal and professional development.”
The new Sundance documentary focused on the economic insecurity of five Disneyland employees who used only their first names in the film: Ralph, Trina, Ellie, Artemis and Sam.
Ralph, a 10-year Disneyland employee, emailed Abigail Disney asking her to help Disneyland cast members fight for better pay. The resulting email exchange ultimately sparked the Sundance documentary.
The pandemic closure of Disneyland for more than a year made a challenging economic situation even more difficult for husband and wife Ralph and Trina, who met while working at Disneyland.
“We live day by day,” Ralph said in the film. “We’re just worried about today and tomorrow and being able to just do the basic stuff.”
Ralph, Trina and their children live with her mother because they can’t afford a place of their own on their Disneyland wages.
“With both of us working full time, we still fall below poverty level,” Ralph said in the film.
Ralph and Trina made $15 per hour at Disneyland and earned an extra 75 cents an hour working the graveyard “third shift.”
“We’re the people who do the pixie dust at night,” Ralph said in the film. “You scrub the kitchens, the floor, the toilets. I’m proud of what I do. I’m very proud. That type of thing you’ll find throughout all the parks.”
Disneyland union members accepted a new three-year contract in December that included a 19% pay hike of $3 per hour over three years — raising starting pay to $18.50 an hour by 2023.
While acknowledging the progress for Disneyland workers, the documentary pointed out that MIT estimates Anaheim’s living wage at $24 per hour.
Ellie worked at both Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm while going to college to become a teacher.
“Disney is an industry leader in terms of theme parks,” Ellie said in the film. “The same things happening at Disney are also happening at Knott’s Berry Farm.”
The documentary recounted a 2018 union-backed survey by Occidental College professor Peter Dreier that found 10 percent of Disneyland employees were homeless at some point and two-thirds of them didn’t have enough money to pay for food.
Disneyland employees interviewed in the documentary said they knew fellow cast members who were on food stamps, slept in their cars and went without medical care.
“Everybody thinks that we can all just bootstrap it and move up,” Artemis said in the film. “If you’re doing that job to the best of your ability, it should be treated like a proper job. I think I should be able to pay my bills on my custodial job.”
Artemis was forced to live in her van for a few months due to an unstable housing situation.
“I look at the housing nearby and it’s very much out of my price range,” Artemis said in the film. “A studio apartment would take 80% of my take-home pay a month. A one-bedroom apartment would be more than I make in a month. I am not finding anything in the Anaheim/Orange County area that is in my price range.”
The documentary took aim at CEO compensation as a key contributor to income inequality in the United States.
Roy O. Disney’s pay including stock options in 1967 was 78 times his lowest workers’ pay, according to the film.
Former Disney CEO Bob Iger made $65 million in 2018 – 1,400 times the median salary of Disney employees, according to the documentary.
The documentary portrayed a Disneyland employee strike in 1984 over the company’s demand for a three-year wage freeze as a turning point for Disneyland cast members.
“They discovered they didn’t have to spend so much money on people that they no longer appreciated anyway,” Sam, a 45-year Disneyland employee, said in the film. “I was appalled at what they were telling me. This isn’t the company I knew.”
Abigail Disney noted in the film that her great uncle Walt Disney and her family’s story were constantly invoked as the embodiment of the American dream.
“My grandfather and great uncle did not rise alone,” Abigail Disney said in the movie. “In the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, a full time worker at Disneyland could afford a modest middle class life. A house, food in the fridge, a car and the ability to raise a family.”
Abigail Disney ended the documentary with an open letter to former Disney CEO Bob Iger and current CEO Bob Chapek.
“This isn’t just a Disney story, it’s the story of nearly half of American full-time workers who can’t make ends meet,” Abigail Disney said in the film. “These problems are the result of a complicated system that constrains us all. It may not be our fault, but it is our responsibility. And you and I both know that with imagination and courage it can be changed.”
The epilogue of the film indicated Ellie continued to work part time at Disneyland and Trina was on unpaid medical leave while Ralph and Artemis no longer worked at the Anaheim theme park.