The Disney Fantasy Is Dead.
Disney reopening its parks amid record COVID-19 numbers in Florida is just one more reminder that despite a magical, cuddly image, it’s just another money-grubbing institution.
Disney is a hell of a drug—and few experiences better demonstrate this than a trip to Disney World.
Feel free to time it: Within 15 minutes of crossing the threshold, you’re bound to run into at least one family reunion in matching shirts, celebrating a shared pilgrimage to the Sunshine State’s closest approximation of a Promised Land. Cheerful, flute-forward music plays from invisible speakers to give you the sense that you’re wandering through your own private fantasy, even as hordes of sweat-soaked bodies lean on banisters and shift weight from one foot to the other in endless lines. It’s the Happiest Place on Earth, you’ve been assured. Never mind the screaming toddlers who reliably throw heat-induced temper tantrums in the women’s bathrooms around 3 p.m.
I used to get a kick out of the fact that nine times out of 10, if I told someone from another country that I’m from Florida, their immediate response would be, “Oh! Disney World!” But over the past decade, especially the last couple years, I’ve come to wish that my home state could be identified with something, anything, else. (Petition to replace Mickey Mouse with cannibal gators as the state’s unofficial mascot, anyone?)
Disney World shut down in March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. But over the weekend, as Florida set a record for new cases of the novel coronavirus in a single day—outpacing all of Europe combined—the park reopened the doors to its Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, with EPCOT and Hollywood Studios set to resume Wednesday. It did so despite its own employees begging for a delay, in a petition that garnered thousands of signatures. A new guide map for the Magic Kingdom includes a chilling warning for guests: “By entering Walt Disney World, you voluntarily assume all risks related to COVID-19.”
Some park workers have even more specific reason to worry: The company refuses to provide regular COVID-19 testing for its actors—who, despite the park’s mask requirement for guests (except in its mask-free “relaxation zones”), must perform their own work maskless. The Actors’ Equity Association, a union that represents some of the park’s actors, released a statement last month condemning Disney for reopening without providing testing for its performers. In response, Disney rescinded its re-employment call for employees represented by the union—which has now filed a grievance against Disney for doing so.
“I just don’t think we’re ready [to reopen] yet,” park cosmetologist Serena James told The Daily Beast last Friday. “I just don’t think this is a good idea. I’m afraid for myself and many of my fellow cast members.”
Disney has taken some precautions upon reopening, with plexiglass partitions and mandatory temperature checks for guests. Inter-park travel between Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and other sections of Disney is now limited. Parades and firework shows have been scuttled to avoid encouraging crowds. The company even released chipper trailers for its grand re-opening—which were quickly dubbed with more sinister music on social media.
But those measures have apparently not stopped park-goers from clumping together in sweaty hordes anyway, as photos taken over the weekend make undeniably clear.
Given the company’s long, sordid history of screwing over its workforce, it’s hard to view the reopening as anything but a callous and almost certainly deadly money grab. And at this point, any shred of the company’s cuddly, fantastical image that remains in the hearts of its adult defenders deserves to die.
It should surprise no one that Disney World would pull a stunt this dangerous to its home state; after all, as many area locals will tell you, its very inception required screwing the state over financially.
In the 1960s, Disney managed to buy its initial 27,000-acre parcel for a mere $5 million—a steal even at the time—by establishing shell companies with names like M.T. Lott (“empty lot”) to snatch up pieces of swampland little by little. The park has its own government—meaning it can, for instance, issue liquor licenses to itself—and frequently sues the state over property taxes. (Parks including Universal and SeaWorld have waged their own property-tax battles against the state as well.)
And that’s saying nothing about the various issues that can plague park employees.
As journalist Ross Perlin noted in his 2011 book Intern Nation—which examined the explosion of unpaid internships—Disney parks rely heavily on a “stunning” array of flexible, contingent labor. Perlin reported that Disney spent the early aughts subcontracting out as much labor as possible, including custodial work and food preparation. According to reports the company submitted to its unions at the time, Perlin wrote, “total casual employee utilization” hovered around 25 percent—meaning that one in every four hours of labor performed at the parks was not performed by a full-time worker. Disney declined multiple requests for comment from Perlin at the time.
In 2017, The New York Times reported that Disney had laid off 250 tech workers, replacing them with immigrants on temporary visas recruited by an outsourcing firm based in India. Some of the former employees were required to train their replacements before they left. Disney executives countered that the company had opened more jobs than it had eliminated as part of a reorganization effort; a representative for the company told the Times, “Disney has created almost 30,000 new jobs in the U.S. over the past decade.”
Still, as one of the axed workers put it, “I just couldn’t believe they could fly people in to sit at our desks and take over our jobs exactly… It was so humiliating to train somebody else to take over your job. I still can’t grasp it.”
A year later, the Times published an even darker exposé about park workers at Anaheim’s Disneyland who lived in their cars. A representative for the company said at the time, “We are proud of our record as a quality employer… We have created more than 4,000 jobs over the last five years—more than any other business in Orange County.” But the issue resurfaced a year later as Disney employees sued the company for failing to pay them a living wage.
“A lot of [workers] have to live in their cars, or on people’s couches, because they can’t afford the rent on that wage in the City of Anaheim,” Kathleen Grace, a plaintiff in the case, told The Daily Beast at the time. “It’s really sad to see. A lot of times, they’re choosing to feed their families or put gas in their car to come to work.” (The case is ongoing.)
And even before the lawsuit, wage inequality within the company had been cast into stark relief that April—when then-CEO Bob Iger’s $65 million 2018 salary became public knowledge. Abigail Disney, Walt Disney’s granddaughter, railed against the disparity in both a viral Twitter thread and, subsequently, an op-ed for the Washington Post, in which she noted that Iger’s take-home amounted to 1,424 times the median pay of a Disney worker.
And this April, as the pandemic left thousands of park employees furloughed, Disney executives railed against pay cuts. As one Disney source put it to The Hollywood Reporter, “Much of the company has ground to a halt because of this pandemic, and for these people to complain in the face of so much suffering in the world is just incredibly selfish and sad.” Weeks later, Abigail Disney once again called executives out for hoarding their bonuses amid the furloughs. Disney grandson Brad Lund joined her.
Even the Disney parks themselves stand in contrast to the warm, fuzzy ethos they’re meant to project. Despite the parks’ sunny reputations, the fantasy they represent has always catered to a select group of people. I mean, they’re just now getting around to changing a ride based on Disney’s most infamously racist film. And if we’re being honest, “Frontierland” is a cutesy homage to a time that hailed Manifest Destiny as its guiding philosophy. (If you think I’m being unreasonable here, imagine visiting the parks as a descendant of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes, all of whom were forcibly removed from their lands under the Indian Removal Act of 1830.) And then there’s the Small World ride—a cheerful, well-intentioned ride that is, nonetheless, essentially a boat tour of cultural essentialism. EPCOT’s World Showcase faces similar issues, which might be why more and more of the country’s displays are being tweaked to center on specific Disney films. Mexico, for instance, now promotes Coco—although it also still sells straw sombreros.
And that’s saying nothing of the litany of sponsorships that litter the park. For instance: Will the renovated Splash Mountain still feature crates emblazoned with the Ziploc logo? Hollywood Studios includes such sponsors as Pop Secret, as well as a full-on Cuties stand. EPCOT features an entire exhibit sponsored by Glidden Paint called “Colortopia.” Sponsorship deals are obviously harmless. But they’re also constant visual reminders that for all the whimsy, Disney Parks are just one corner of a huge, multibillion-dollar business—not the magical utopia they so convincingly purport to be.
Like many native Floridians, I absorbed Disney into my bloodstream at an early age. For years its movies told my favorite stories, and its parks were the sites of my favorite adventures. I attended one of my first concerts on Disney property. (House of Blues Orlando is located inside Disney Springs, OK?!) And since complaints about “cancel culture” are in vogue, I suppose I should clarify that I am not lobbying to “cancel” Disney, its theme parks, or Mickey Mouse. I wish they would close their parks during the pandemic, and I think their choice to reopen is wildly irresponsible—but I also feel that way about a lot of other U.S. entities and institutions right now. Really, I just wish more of Disney’s adult obsessives would see the company for the powerful behemoth it actually is. Because as much as so, so many people care about Disney, Disney just proved once and for all that it does not care about them.