Disneyland is famously promoted as the "happiest place on earth." But for many of the theme park's 30,000 employees, it isn't the happiest place to work. That's what we discovered after spending a year talking with Disneyland workers and conducting a survey of about 5,000 "cast members," as the company refers to its employees.
Since 2000, Disneyland's attendance (more than 27 million in 2016), daily ticket prices ($117 most days of the year for anyone over the age of 10) and revenues (more than $3 billion) have increased, but during that period, its employees' pay has dropped 15% in real dollars.
Our survey of food service workers, hair stylists, costumers, candy makers, security guards, custodians, hotel workers, retail workers, ticket takers, musicians, puppeteers, singers and dancers affiliated with 10 different unions revealed that 85% of Disneyland employees are paid less than $15 an hour. Even among full-time employees who have worked at Disneyland for more than 15 years, 54% are paid less than $15 an hour and 13% are paid less than $11 an hour.
Workers at the Anaheim resort are paid so little that more than 1 in 10 report being homeless at some point in the last two years, two-thirds say they don't have enough food to eat three meals a day and three-quarters say they can't afford basic expenses every month.
As the largest employer in Orange County, Disneyland's low-wage policy hurts the area's economy, even as the local Anaheim government has subsidized the park's expansion and hotel development. The surrounding community is now contending with weak buying power from workers and growing social safety net costs.
Disney has used the theme park's huge profits to offset losses from its less-successful investments, particularly the sports television channel ESPN. Disney is now doubling down in its communications investments with the pending $52-billion acquisition of Fox Network assets.
If that plan goes through and the company reaches its other major goals, Chief Executive Robert Iger will see his pay quadruple to $162.5 million a year. That would make his annual compensation equal to the total pay of 9,284 Disneyland workers.
Many of the park's employees aren't sure they'll be able to keep a roof over their heads. Fifty-six percent are worried about being evicted from their homes or apartments. Over half of the workers who rent say they live in overcrowded housing. Eleven percent of Disneyland workers reported being homeless — living in their cars, or on friends' floors and couches, or in shelters — in the last two years. Rather than dealing with this crisis, the Walt Disney Co. has consistently opposed the construction of affordable housing in Anaheim.
Two-thirds of Disneyland workers — and three-quarters of those with young children — lack sufficient access to safe and nutritious food. They meet the Department of Agriculture's definition of "food insecure." This compares with 12% of people in California and nationwide.
Although the Walt Disney Co. requires Disneyland employees to smile at park visitors, 43% of employees report that they need, but cannot afford, dental care. More than one-third of parents with young children say they need but can't afford prescription medicine. And over a third of employees enrolled in the Disneyland health insurance plan report that they have to give up other necessities to pay the monthly premiums.
The stereotype is that Disneyland employees are teenagers or college students working temporary jobs before starting their careers. In fact, among the workers in our survey, four-fifths are 30 years or older. Disneyland is the primary source of income for nine-tenths of its workers, and a third of them support children.
Only 28% of Disneyland employees report having the same schedule every week. More than half (59%) of the employees with young children say their erratic schedules at the park make it difficult to care for their families and children. Even so, Disneyland, a family resort, has no child care center for its employees.
Walt Disney once said, "You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality." Unfortunately, his successors at the company are shortchanging the people part of that equation. Our survey found that while 80% of Disneyland employees are proud of the work they do, they feel undervalued, disrespected and underpaid.
"I've spent the last 29 years working to give people a magical experience at Disneyland, and yet every month, I face choices between rent, food or bills," said Glynndana Shevlin, a food and beverage concierge at the park. "I have been evicted twice. … I'm often hungry because I'm skipping meals. At work, I'm a clean, happy person, but when I leave and get in my car, I become a sad, unhappy person who doesn't always know where I'm going to sleep."
A recent Los Angeles Times investigation found that over the last two decades, the Walt Disney Co. secured subsidies, incentives, rebates and protections from future taxes from the city of Anaheim that would be worth more than $1 billion. The taxpayers' return on this investment has been meager because most Disneyland employees make too little to boost the area's businesses.
Raising the wage floor at Disneyland to $20 an hour would increase its employees' buying power by $190 million a year. When those workers spend their increased pay for things such as housing, groceries, restaurant meals, healthcare, car maintenance and child care, according to our analysis, it would generate $210 million more in sales by businesses in Anaheim and other communities where workers live.
The Walt Disney Co. is attacking our results, but the survey's methodology is sound and its respondents are representative of the 58% of Disneyland employees who are unionized. Park workers signed into the survey using an ID number, assuring that they couldn't respond multiple times.
Disney is one of America's most profitable corporations. It can afford to look honestly at its workers' circumstances and pay them enough to make ends meet.
Peter Dreier is a professor of politics at Occidental College. Daniel Flaming is president of the Los Angeles Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit research organization. The survey of Disneyland employees was underwritten by a coalition of the resort's labor unions.