A new Sundance Film Festival documentary contrasts the economic plight of Disneyland employees and Disney’s financial success as symbols of American financial inequality and corporate greed.
The American Dream and Other Tales, by documentary filmmaker, philanthropist and social activist Abigail Disney, debuted on Monday, January 24 at the Sundance Film Festival, which was moved online due to COVID-19 concerns.
Documentary Message: Disneyland and the Disney Company epitomize the growing inequality in the United States and the moral decline of corporate America.
Abigail Disney — the daughter of former Disney senior executive Roy E. Disney and the granddaughter of Disney co-founder Roy O. Disney — has long been critical of Disney CEO compensation and the company’s treatment of its actors, speaking the language of Disney to employees.
“The well-being and aspirations of our staff and actors will always be our top priority,” a Disney spokesperson said in a statement. “We provide a leading and holistic employment package that includes competitive salaries and comprehensive benefits for our actors to develop their careers and take care of their families. This starts with fair pay and a first-class salary, but also includes affordable health insurance, access to free higher education, subsidized childcare for eligible employees, and opportunities for personal and professional development.”
A new Sundance documentary focused on the economic insecurity of five Disneyland employees who used only their first names in the film: Ralph, Trina, Ellie, Artemis and Sam.
Ralph, who has worked at Disneyland for 10 years, emailed Abigail Disney asking them to help Disneyland actors fight for higher pay. The email exchange eventually resulted in a Sundance documentary.
The closure of Disneyland due to the pandemic for more than a year has made the difficult economic situation even more difficult for husband and wife Ralph and Trina, who met while working at Disneyland.
“We live day by day,” Ralph said in the film. “We just worry about today and tomorrow and can just do the basic stuff.”
Ralph, Trina, and their children live with her mother because they cannot afford their own housing on their Disneyland salary.
“Because we both work full time, we are still below the poverty line,” Ralph said in the film.
Ralph and Trina made $15 an hour at Disneyland and earned an extra 75 cents an hour working “third shift” at the cemetery.
“We are the people who apply pixie dust at night,” Ralph said in the film. “You clean kitchens, floors, toilets. I am proud of what I do. I am very proud. You will find such things in all parks.”
Disneyland union members signed a new three-year contract in December that included a 19% pay increase of $3 an hour for three years, with starting pay increased to $18.50 an hour by 2023.
While acknowledging the progress of the Disneyland workers, the documentary notes that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates the cost of living in Anaheim at $24 an hour.
Ellie worked at both Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm while in college to become a teacher.
“Disney is the leader of the theme park industry,” Ellie said in the film. “The same thing that happens at Disney happens at Knott’s Berry Farm.”
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The documentary chronicles a 2018 survey by Western College professor Peter Dryer that found that 10 percent of Disneyland employees were homeless at some point, and two-thirds of them didn’t have enough money to pay for food.
Disneyland employees interviewed in the documentary said they knew other actors who received food stamps, slept in their cars and were left without medical attention.
“Everyone thinks we can all just fire it up and move up,” Artemis said in the film. “If you do this work to the best of your ability, it should be treated as proper work. I think I should be able to pay my bills for my job as a security guard.”
Artemis was forced to live in her van for several months due to her precarious housing situation.
“I’m looking at housing nearby and it’s very much out of my price range,” Artemis said in the film. “The studio apartment will cost 80% of my monthly salary. A one bedroom apartment will be more than I earn in a month. I don’t find anything in the Anaheim/Orange County area that is in my price range.”
The documentary was aimed at CEO compensation as a key driver of income inequality in the United States.
According to the film, Roy O. Disney’s salary, including stock options, was 78 times his lowest salary in 1967.
According to the documentary, former Disney CEO Bob Iger made $65 million in 2018, which is 1,400 times the average Disney employee salary.
The documentary shows the 1984 Disneyland employees’ strike over the company’s demand for a three-year wage freeze as a turning point for Disneyland’s actors.
“They found they didn’t have to spend so much money on people they don’t appreciate anymore anyway,” Sam, a 45-year-old Disneyland employee, said in the film. “I was shocked by what they told me. This is not the company I knew.”
Abigail Disney noted in the film that her great uncle Walt Disney and her family’s history were constantly cited as the embodiment of the American dream.
“My grandpa and great uncle didn’t rise up alone,” Abigail Disney said in the film. “In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, the full-time Disneyland worker could afford a modest middle-class life. A house, food in the fridge, a car and the opportunity to start a family.”
Abigail Disney ended the documentary with an open letter to former Disney CEO Bob Iger and current CEO Bob Chapek.
“This isn’t just a Disney story, it’s the story of almost half of American full-time workers who can’t make ends meet,” Abigail Disney said in the film. “These problems are the result of a complex system that holds us all back. Maybe it’s not our fault, but it’s our responsibility. You and I both know that with imagination and courage, this can be changed.”
The film’s epilogue states that Ellie continued to work part-time at Disneyland and Trina was on unpaid sick leave, and Ralph and Artemis were no longer working at the Anaheim theme park.