Disneyland characters unionize as company invests in parks

Disneyland Resort characters voted to unionize with the Actors’ Equity Association this month. The character actors at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando have been organized with the Teamsters since the 1980s. Courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association.

Mickey Mouse, Tigger, and Mulan now have a union to help them win a workplace happily ever after.

Character performers and the hosts that assist them in parades and meet-and-greets at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim voted 953 to 258 to join the Actors’ Equity Association. The National Labor Relations Board will certify the May 18 election results this week, if Disney does not file a challenge. 

Costumed characters will join other unionized Disney workers who believe they have new leverage amid a growing labor movement, ongoing contract negotiations, and the company’s plans to invest heavily in its theme parks.

“I think that Disney can change for the better,” says Mai Vo, who works as a look-alike princess at Disneyland. “After celebrating 100 years of Disney [in 2023], what's that next 100 years going to look like? We have an opportunity to say what that is.” 

Workers see this as a good moment to get the company to meet their demands on workplace safety, job security, and pay. Disney received the City of Anaheim’s approval this spring to spend $1.9 billion spiffing up and expanding the resort over the next decade. 

In comparison to that figure, the company can afford to take care of the 1,700 cast members that make up the new union, Actors’ Equity President Kate Shindle says: “If these workers got every single thing on their wish list, it would be not even a drop in the bucket.”

The resorts hold a lot of value to the Walt Disney Company. Disney’s Experiences Department — cruises, merchandise, and theme parks — brought in 70% of the company’s operating income in the first quarter, according to the latest earnings report. Workers say the “magic making” they do on the job is a big contributor to this financial success.

“We're seeing that and we're saying, ‘Where's our cut of that?’” says Aaron Zarate, a unionized candy maker. “When are we going to get what we deserve?”

Most workers at Disneyland Resort are already unionized, including custodians, food service workers, cashiers, and ride operators. Currently, over 13,000 of them are negotiating a new joint contract. The current agreement expires June 16. 

“We're not going to be pushovers,” says Zarate. “We're going to stand firm on what we want and what we believe.”

Zarate, who is on the negotiating committee, says a top priority is pay. Many of his co-workers earn $19.90 an hour. The MIT living wage calculator estimates a single adult in Orange County would need $30.48 an hour to make ends meet. Zarate says he’s constantly hearing about co-workers who live in hotels or skip meals to pay bills. “A lot of the cast members feel like the company is taking advantage of them,” he says.

At the top of the list for character performers planning to negotiate with Disney for the first time is on-the-job safety, says Vo: “I've seen a lot of things over the years that haven't been very magical, unfortunately.”

In large part, this is due to the physical demands of the performers’ jobs. Vo’s seen co-workers sustain injuries from complicated parade choreography, and from the heavy full-body costumes that characters like Goofy, Chewbaca, and the Red Panda Mei wear. She says she’s experienced symptoms of heat illness while working in triple-digit temperatures, and her eyes were stained permanently after repeatedly wearing “painful” black contact lenses for a role. It took weeks, she says, before management got her a new pair. “I also was concerned that if I complained too much, then the role would be taken away,” says Vo.

When asked about the incident, a Disney spokesperson told KCRW, “Safety always has been and continues to be a top priority for all of our cast.”