ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s a pretty tall order to live up to when you’re known as the Happiest Place on Earth.
Is it just hyperbole or do some people—young and not so young—experience a bit of nirvana topped with pixie dust as soon as they cross the threshold of a Disney theme park and get a glimpse of Mickey and Minnie?
Depends on who you ask.
On this episode of Florida’s Fourth Estate, hosts Ginger Gadsden and Matt Austin speak with Dr. Abigail Disney, whose grandfather was Roy Disney and great-uncle was Walt Disney. They are the two men who built Disneyland in Anaheim, California, and Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
Abigail Disney is quick to point out you would be hard-pressed to find anyone else who loves Disney more than she does.
But these days, her love hurts and is cutting to the core of Disney culture as she questions why some loyal employees can’t make ends meet. Some of them claim they can barely afford food while others say they know cast members who have slept in cars because they can’t afford an apartment or home.
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She said it wasn’t always that way.
“I grew up with my grandfather going through the cast member entrance to the park and I remember the people who work there with incredible affection,” Disney said. “And there was a great deal of affection between them and my grandfather as well.”
Disney added she saw the relationship shift over the decades as management changed.
“I saw the nature of the way workers were treated there and frankly, everywhere else, in America over the last 50 years. And I wanted to make a film about why it changed so dramatically... and what we can do about it,” she said.
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Her new documentary, “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales” takes a walk down memory lane as she fondly recalls the early days of Disneyland.
The theme park in Anaheim, California opened in 1955. She has many happy memories of park visits there, so it is troubling when she hears stories about cast members who are struggling.
And while looking for answers, Disney has come across a lot of people who don’t appreciate her opening previously shut doors.
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“I would say I probably love Disney more than any other super fan could possibly love Disney. It’s in my DNA, it’s down to my toes, and I remember every detail and every nuance of both of those parks,” she said. “I will tell you, though, if you really, really, really love something, then you have to see it truthfully and you have to speak the truth about it and it’s not perfect. I wish it were.”
Disney added if you’re running the supposed Happiest Place on Earth, but your employees can’t afford to put food on the table, there’s a problem.
“Should I let the thing that I love just keep going on that way or should I do my best to change that?” she said.
Disney said she knows not everyone will understand her plight or even agree with it, but she believes the company she shares a name with can and must do better by its workers.
“Disney can make money and still be a visionary company, a company that supports the wellbeing of their employees. Both of these things can coexist,” she said. “Unfortunately, the way we run businesses in this country, we’ve come to believe these things are mutually exclusive, that managements must always get workers for as little as they can possibly get workers.”
When asked about how her grandfather would feel about the company today, she said she couldn’t imagine he would feel OK about this.
“I was very close to my grandfather,” Disney said. “I was 12 when he died and I think I understand the man he was and I cannot imagine he would rest his head on the pillow at night and sleep well knowing that... (some get) $65 million... (while there were other) people who couldn’t put food on the table who worked for him full time.”
Disney said it’s not the amount of money CEOs make that bothers her.
“I don’t have a problem with your $65 million, I really don’t. Bless you, you’re welcome to it. But don’t take it until everybody’s fed,” Disney said.
The $65 million Disney is referring to is the salary plus bonuses that former CEO Bob Iger earned in 2018. She called that kind of compensation “insane.”
She knows speaking out against the company that affords her so many luxuries might also be considered insane by some but she said she is compelled to do the right thing.
Disney also said she is often called a traitor to her name, which is why she has spent time looking into what that means.
“I kind of study traitors because people call me a traitor all the time,” she said. “When you think of traitors, you think of Benedict Arnold. Other kinds of traitors are people who walk away from privilege or question the comforts they were born into and ask themselves, ‘Is there a higher loyalty?’ And I believe I have a loyalty higher than Disney and that’s to my fellow human beings.”
If you would like to hear more from Dr. Abigail Disney, click the link.
You can also check out her documentary “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales” at the Enzian Theater in Maitland, which is offering multiple screenings through Sept. 22.
Disney will also participate in a Q&A and special appearances at the theatre.
Find more information by clicking here.
News 6 reached out to Walt Disney World for comment, but they have not responded.