Abigail Disney, an heiress of the Walt Disney empire, has become a champion for better working conditions in her family’s parks after she went undercover in one of them and found a grim reality beneath the facade of the “Happiest Place on Earth.”
Disney, 59, decided to look into working conditions at Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California, last year, after a beleaguered worker reached out to her via Facebook. What she found there left her disenchanted — and, she says, clashed with the values of her grandfather, Roy Disney, who co-founded the company with his brother, Walt Disney.
“Every single one of these people I talked to were saying, ‘I don’t know how I can maintain this face of joy and warmth when I have to go home and forage for food in other people’s garbage,’ ” Disney told Yahoo News. “I was so livid when I came out of there because, you know, my grandfather taught me to revere these people that take your tickets, that pour your soda.”
Disney doesn’t have an active role in the company, which GOBankingRates recently estimated has a net worth of $130 billion. The Walt Disney Co. enjoyed a record profit of $12.6 billion last year on nearly $60 billion in revenue, with much thanks to the strong performance of its theme parks. After a prosperous year — in part fueled by the windfall from President Donald Trump’s tax cuts — Disney offered $1,000 bonuses to more than 125,000 workers and funneled $50 billion into an employee education program.
“Disney is at the forefront of providing workforce education, which is widely recognized as the best way to create economic opportunity for employees and empower upward mobility,” the Walt Disney Co. said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Our Disney Aspire initiative is the most comprehensive employee education program in the country, covering 100% of all tuition costs, books and fees so our hourly workers can pursue higher education free of charge, and graduate free of debt.”
In the statement, the company also said it offers “flexible schedules and subsidized child care” for its employees, and said that more than 40% of Disney’s hourly workers are signed up to participate in the Disney Aspire initiative.
Still, considering the vastness of its resources, Disney said her family’s company isn’t doing enough to take care of its lowest-earning workers.
“Those people are much of the recipe for success,” Disney said on Yahoo’s “Through Her Eyes” podcast. “And in a company that’s never been more profitable, there is no excuse for any employee to be using food stamps, to be doubling up on housing, to be rationing their insulin.”
Disney made headlines in April when she criticized the “insane” compensation of Disney’s chief executive, Bob Iger, who took home more than $65 million last year, according to Equilar. In a viral tweet thread, Disney took her family’s company to task, pointing out that Iger made 1,424 times as much as the median Disney employee.
“At a company that has never been more profitable, whose top executives drive home with seven- and eight-figure paychecks and whose primary resource is the good-spirited, public-facing people who greet guests day after day, why are we dancing around a minimum wage anyway?” Disney wrote in a commentary for The Post after her tweets made headlines. “I’m not arguing that Iger and others do not deserve bonuses. They do. They have led the company brilliantly. I am saying that the people who contribute to its success also deserve a share of the profits they have helped make happen.”
Disney told Yahoo News that she sent Iger an email detailing what she’d heard from workers in Disneyland and urging him to improve their conditions. In response, she heard “nothing.”
A 2017 study from Occidental College that surveyed 17,000 Disneyland workers — more than half of the resort’s employees — revealed widespread struggles to make ends meet. Ten percent of employees reported having been homeless within the past two years. Two-thirds of employees said they couldn’t afford to eat three meals a day; 75% said they were unable to pay all their bills each month.
“I have been working for Disneyland for almost 28 years and I make less than $20 an hour. If I didn’t have my husband to help with the bills and other life expenses, I would be living out of my car, or worse, homeless,” said one employee quoted in the study, “Working for the Mouse.” “Disney has increased admission tickets, food & merchandise has increased too. Yet, the front of line ‘Cast Members’ are struggling to pay their mortgage/rent, groceries, transportation and other daily/monthly bills.”
Last summer, unions representing nearly 10,000 Disneyland workers reached an agreement with the company to raise hourly starting wages to $15 an hour. The new starting rate went into effect in January and will go up to $15.45 an hour in June 2020.