Disneyland isn’t ‘happiest place’ for its workers who live below poverty line

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Disneyland workers demonstrate and call for better wages and working conditions outside the park in Anaheim. Credit: Fork Films.

Since “the happiest place on earth” opened in Anaheim in 1955, many Disneyland workers there have struggled to find joy. They’ve relied on food stamps, and/or couldn’t afford medical care or rent. 

Abigail Disney, the great niece of Walt, has spent years calling out the company for not paying a living wage. She and Kathleen Hughes are out with a new documentary, “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales.”

Disney tells KCRW that she never let herself fully learn about the extent of workers’ hardships — she only knew about them generally.  

Then Ralph, a Disneyland employee, reached out to her via Facebook. He and his partner Trina worked at Disneyland full-time, had four kids, and lived with Trina’s mom. They made $15 an hour and still fell below the poverty line.   

“In the dark cobwebby corner of my mind, I knew it wasn't good. But I didn't let myself think about it,” she explains. “There was something about being reached out to personally that really hit me in the gut. I couldn't just simply say, ‘Well, that has nothing to do with me.’ I just felt like as a person of good faith, I owed them at least to hear them out.”

Disney contacted then-Disney Company CEO Bob Iger. She says his response was unsatisfactory. 

Then, in a CNBC interview, she was asked if Iger’s salary was too high. She replied, “I think CEOs in general are paid far too much. … If your CEO salary is at the 700, 600, 500 times your median workers’ pay … Jesus Christ himself isn’t worth 500 times his median workers’ pay.”  

Hughes worked on previous documentaries about income inequality. She says she was enthusiastic about collaborating with Disney because of her name’s power. 

“The way wages have stagnated for workers is one of those stories that's only getting worse. We all know how much people love Disney. And when you say Disney, people usually stop and listen. So it seemed like a really smart way to go about it,” Hughes says.

Compensation rises for CEOs, what about workers?   

Disney says CEO compensation grew to new heights in the 1970s and 1980s. She argues that while CEO jobs could be more demanding, they don’t do sweat-inducing tasks. She recalls how her grandfather picked up garbage whenever he walked into the park.

“It was like a religion with him. … And I know that sounds like a very weird thing to point out. Except that if you talk to people who’ve worked at Disney for a long time, they'll tell you that's an ethos that bosses pick up garbage. And when I asked him why he did that, he said, ‘I want everyone to know that no one is too good to pick up a piece of garbage.’ And I think that that is the thing we've lost.”

Hughes says Disney has become the standard for high CEO compensation. 

“We hope that when people watch the documentary, they don't walk away thinking that we're just picking on Disney. In many ways, Disney is just a standard for corporate America. But we would hope that, given how massive Disney, if Disney decided to change its labor practices, other companies might follow suit.”

According to the documentary, Iger used to make 2,000 times more than the lowest paid employee. Disney adds that in the eight years leading up to the pandemic, the company made nearly $8 billion in share buybacks. She asks why couldn’t some of that go to employee raises and better health care.

“The question is, ‘Is a corporation obligated to pay its employees as little as it can possibly get away with? Or do they see their employees as true partners in making profits and structure pay in that way?’”

The Walt Disney Company defends its compensation, stating they offer leading entry wages, affordable medical coverage, access to tuition-free higher education, subsidized child care for eligible employees, as well as pathways for personal and professional development. 

So far, Disney has seen some progress since she and Hughes started filming in 2018. 

“They were still at $11.25 an hour. It went, not long after we started, to $15 an hour, in part because that's where the state went, and there was a lot of employee activism. After that it went to $18.50. And that's not because the corporation is being generous. That's because people fought and raised their voices,” Disney explains.

Today, Disney says she’s just as in love with the park as she was as a kid and is fully dedicated to the fight for workers’ rights. 

“If you stand there at the gates and you watch people come and go from the park with their families and their mouse ears and their giant turkey legs, what you see there is so joyful and beautiful,” Disney says. “I can't imagine this world without it. What they do is important and valuable and necessary, and it can't be done on the backs of people. It's not right. … So I'm going to fight for this thing. I'm going to fight with everything I have.”