In part two of our conversation with filmmaker and podcast host Abigail Disney, she reflects on growing up with that famous name. Abigail is the daughter of Walt's nephew, Roy Disney. In part one, she called out top Disney executives for taking home millions of dollars as 32,000 low-wage workers at the theme parks lost their jobs.
Long gone are the days when Disney was a family-owned company, but Abigail remembers a time when her grandfather, Walt’s brother Roy, kept the company on track, especially as Walt pursued more fantastical and expensive ideas. Abigail’s grandfather handled the finances, and while she’s mindful of the darker aspects of the company’s history, she says Roy acted as the kind of corporate conscience that doesn’t seem to exist at the company today.
Abigail acknowledges she has benefitted from the Disney name her entire life. But she’s given away much of her money and is now a fierce critic of the company’s employment policies.
As Abigail Disney notes, the Disney company underwent a big shift in the mid-1980s, when Michael Eisner took over as CEO. Eisner and his team brought the drifting studio roaring back to life with hit movies, a revitalized animation division, and higher theme park ticket prices. Eventually Disney opened more theme parks and acquired ABC, ESPN, and The Muppets.
The company’s value soared and for Abigail Disney’s family, they soon found themselves in a whole new world of extraordinary wealth. Disney says it was around that time that her family’s name started to stand for something other than cute movies or a magical childhood vacation. Suddenly, there was a sense of wealth and corporate greed.
Abigail Disney describes what having that much money means: “You can really create an environment in which you just simply never interact with anyone normal again. And it is, in my opinion, incredibly erosive to your character.”
She says she almost changed her name when she got married, but ultimately decided she was too much of a feminist to do so. Also her family name was asking something of her, and she needed to figure out what it was.
Disney also remembers the end of Eisner’s tenure, when her father Roy orchestrated a shareholders’ revolt. That raucous 2004 event was not your typical staid shareholders’ gathering. Stockholders of all ages and backgrounds came to the meeting in Philadelphia to have their voices heard. Abigail Disney says that’s because “people invest a lot of their own hearts and their families into this company. And so when it feels like it’s going off the rails, the hurt that’s felt ... is huge.”