The Real Cost of Working in the House of Mouse
Up in the tower of the Disneyland Hotel, where she serves guests a buffet of pastries and platters, Glynndana Shevlin sometimes feels her own stomach grumble. The 59-year-old packs a lunch when she can—rations of microwavable potatoes, or pasta with canned soup that reminds her of her mother’s cooking. But often, when the groceries don’t stretch through the week, Glynndana will limit herself to one meal a day.
From the top floor of the hotel’s E-Ticket Club, the lounge for upgraded guests where Glynndana works as a food-and-beverage concierge host, she can see the top of the Matterhorn’s peak, the white spires of Space Mountain, Mickey’s Fun Wheel, and the desert hills of Cars Land. Every weekday around 2 p.m., she rides the service elevator to the 11th floor, dressed in a pressed white shirt, black slacks, and a shiny royal-blue vest. A pair of mouse-shaped studs adorns her ears. Each day, she watches families and couples stroll along a winding path that disappears into the park, and each night, she can see fireworks bursting over Sleeping Beauty Castle. Glynndana has worked as a cast member at Disneyland for 30 years.
At home, Glynndana is used to living a modest life. But the past few years have been tougher than others. In 2014, she was evicted from her home and spent more than two months in a women’s shelter before moving into a trailer with a friend. After two years, the trailer fell through, and she moved her belongings into a storage unit. For the next 18 months, she mostly slept on the couches and guest beds of friends and family. When there was nowhere else to go, she slept in her car.
By 2017, Glynndana couldn’t figure out why her weekly paycheck of between $400 and $600—$15.70 an hour before taxes, sometimes with overtime—disappeared so quickly. “I just thought I was being really bad with my money,” she said. She kept her expenses low, resorting to a diet of eggs, cheese, and crackers when necessary, turning down invitations to go out for dinner, and waiting until her gas tank ran out before refilling it. She didn’t want to tell her friends how much she was struggling, and she wouldn’t dare tell her guests, even those she had known for years. Like many of her coworkers, Glynndana loves entertaining Disneyland’s visitors. Even when she felt hungry, worried about unpaid bills, or had nowhere to sleep, coming to work felt like throwing a party. She didn’t want to ruin the magic.
In the summer of 2017, Glynndana got a call from her union, Unite Here Local 11, which represents the hospitality workers at Disneyland’s hotels, asking if she would participate in a survey. At the time, there had been rumors going around the resort that some workers were finding it difficult to keep up with their bills and were skipping meals; a few had said they didn’t have a place to live anymore. Union leaders wanted to find out if the rumors were true, to determine whether the tales of hardship were one-off extremes, or indicative of a bigger problem.
In the early years of the park, the 31 unions that represent the majority of Disneyland Resort’s workers—from fry cooks to custodians to actors—operated under one collective contract known as the Master Services Agreement. But as Disneyland’s workforce grew, from thousands to tens of thousands, and workers’ demands evolved, many of the unions started negotiating on their own. In 2016, when word got around that Disney wanted to alter its attendance policy for workers, about 20 union representatives met to discuss how they could push back. Most of them had never worked together before. When Disney eventually pulled its proposal, the unions wondered: What else can we achieve together?
During these meetings, Chris Duarte, who heads Workers United Local 50, which represents food and beverage service inside the parks, realized that workers all across the resort were barely making a living. Duarte and leaders from nine unions and one community advocacy group pooled funding to hire a team of researchers at the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles, and the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College to survey Disneyland workers about their livelihood. The survey, as far as the union leaders knew, would be the first of its kind in the park’s 62-year history.
Glynndana opened the survey on her smartphone and answered the 50 questions honestly. How likely was it that she would be able to pay for housing this month? Did she earn enough to cover basic expenses? How often did she worry about getting evicted? Over the next few months, Glynndana chatted with her coworkers about the survey during their breaks or after work. Some of them told her that they had been evicted or gone bankrupt before. One said that she had been sleeping in her car. It was the first time Glynndana heard her coworkers open up about their struggles. “It was that elephant in the room, but nobody was talking about it,” she told me. “We didn’t want to believe it was real.”
When the survey, “Working for the Mouse,” was published in February 2018, Glynndana went to a press conference at Occidental College to hear the results. She picked up a copy of the 132-page report and flipped through its pages. “When I was looking at the graphs, it smacked me in the face,” she said. Out of the 5,000 people who completed the survey—one-sixth of Disneyland Resort’s workforce—73 percent reported that they didn’t earn enough money to pay for basic expenses like rent, food, and gas. The survey also revealed that, when adjusted for inflation, average wages in the park had declined 15 percent between 2000 and 2017. More than one in ten respondents said that, at some point in the past two years, they did not have a place of their own to sleep.
(Disney declined to respond to our requests for comment on this story, instead providing a fact sheet about employment, which states, “Disneyland Resort is committed to providing a leading employment package that provides growth opportunities and employment stability.” In a statement to the New York Times in February, a Disney spokesperson said, “The [survey] results are deliberately distorted and do not reflect how the overwhelming majority of our 30,000 cast members feel about the company.”)
This is serious, Glynndana thought. It’s not only you. She opened a calculator app on her phone and punched in her wages. Since 2008, her hourly pay had risen $2, from $13.70 to $15.70 today. After adjusting for inflation, that equaled a ten-cent raise over ten years. She thought about how the price of bread, eyeglasses, and health care had risen. “No wonder I couldn’t come up with rent on the first,” she said. “There were things that had changed, but I didn’t realize it.”
Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California—which includes Disneyland Park, opened in 1955, and Disney California Adventure, opened in 2001—employs nearly 30,000 people. “Cast members,” as they are known in the resort, collect your ticket as you enter; they usher you through lines, start and stop your rides, and take your photograph with Mickey; they sell you balloons and churros and turkey legs and ice cream; they sing and dance and play instruments while marching down Main Street; they flip and serve your burgers; they curtsy in princess gowns and twirl you around; they style Cinderella’s wigs. They also clean the toilets, twist candy canes, sweep up garbage, listen to complaints, make beds, carry suitcases, and drive parade floats. Most of all, cast members help visitors forget about the world outside and surrender to the world within, as Walt Disney intended. Employees didn’t merely work at the park, he insisted, they were an essential part of the set, “cast for parts,” as the head of Disney University, the training ground for workers, told a reporter around the time of the park’s opening.
“It is you who will make Disneyland truly a magic kingdom,” Walt Disney wrote in a letter welcoming new employees in the summer of 1955, when the park first opened. People flew in from across the country to work at a theme park designed to be unlike any other—clean and wholesome (no alcohol), and a place where adults and children could experience, as Disney put it, “the wonders of life, of adventure, and feel better because of it.” Keeping the Disneyland dream alive required not just new attractions, its founder was known to say, but also “keeping it staffed properly … never letting your personnel get sloppy … never let them be unfriendly … That is what has built our organization.”
To maintain the cleanest theme park in the world, Disney hired Charles Boyajian, a former Navy officer, as the park’s first manager of custodial operations. Boyajian and Disney shared a philosophy: “Cleanliness breeds cleanliness.” By the early 1960s, roughly 4,000 people worked at the park, with nearly a quarter responsible for park maintenance and cleaning—picking up empty popcorn bags, refueling the gray submarines in Tomorrowland, polishing the brass on the King Arthur Carousel. “When I’m through, you could eat in the gutter,” a custodian who hosed down the park’s streets boasted to a reporter in 1963.
Greg King started in Disneyland’s custodial department in 1967, shortly after Walt Disney’s death left control of the park to Roy, his brother and longtime business partner. King’s family first came to Disneyland the summer it opened, and they returned regularly; he used to joke that he would someday need to work at the park in order to recoup his family’s money. King started busing tables part-time during the peak seasons, making $1.91 an hour. He often heard Boyajian say that he promised Walt the park would be clean, and he made sure the custodial crew kept his word. “He was very much a stickler,” King said. “He did it out of pride in the job more than anything else.”
After his second summer at the park, King became a permanent custodian, working weekends and picking up extra shifts. He started clocking more than 20 hours a week, which eventually qualified him for health care. Every year, his wages went up by a fixed percentage, as mandated by his union’s contract. (Disneyland custodians are represented by the United Service Workers West, a regional branch of the Service Employees International Union.) He married his first love, Darlene, who worked as an administrative assistant at the Southern California Gas Company, and together they saved for a down payment on a house. In King’s fifth year at the park, 1972, they bought a two-story home with four bedrooms and a yard in the middle-class suburb of Diamond Bar, then about a 25-minute drive from Anaheim, for $40,000 (about $240,000 today). “Fortunately, we bought the house before prices went up,” he told me. “Now my kids pay a lot more for their car payments.” By then, King was working full-time and making about $4 an hour, or about $24 today.
Even when she felt hungry, worried about unpaid bills, or had nowhere to sleep, coming to work felt like throwing a party. She didn’t want to ruin the magic.
A few years later, after the birth of the couple’s first child, King’s wife quit her job. King started picking up as many overtime shifts as he could to make up the difference. By the couple’s fourth child, King was working more hours to support his family and afford expansions to their house. Occasionally he refereed youth and high school football games for extra cash.
By King’s 17th year at Disneyland, in 1983, he was making around $10 an hour (around $25 in 2018 dollars). Company morale was slipping. Roy Disney’s death in 1971 had left management in the hands of executives outside the family for the first time in company history. Even as new parks opened in Florida and Tokyo, attendance at Disneyland fell for the third consecutive year. In 1984, investor Saul Steinberg attempted, and failed, to take over the company. Disney executives proposed freezing wages to help cut costs, pointing to an internal survey that showed its workers made more than those at competitor parks. They also proposed taking away health benefits entirely for part-time cast members working less than 20 hours per week.
On September 25, 1984, more than 1,800 of the park’s 5,000 employees walked off their jobs, making it the third and largest strike among park workers to date. In 1970, 82 guild actors who performed in the park had gone on strike for four months to demand better pay, shutting down several live shows in the process. (As many as 39 were fired as a result.) They were later joined by 48 stagehands who picketed for a month to demand better raises, forcing supervisors to take over stage operations at several attractions. Both strikes ended when Disney offered the unions new contracts, the terms of which were undisclosed.
King joined the 1984 strike on its first day, picketing along the southern edge of the park. Disney had secured a court order banning picket lines on its property, and the park’s president, Richard Nunis, issued letters warning picketers to return to work or risk replacement. Supervisors and clerks filled in to operate rides and sell food; secretaries cleaned the bathrooms.
“It saddens me to stand outside something I love and wave a picket sign,” a ride operator told the Orange County Register at the time. “But I’m doing this for future park employees. I’m trying to protect their chance to work in a special place.”
Two weeks into the strike, after a state Supreme Court decision lifted the picket ban, hundreds of workers marched up to the park’s gates and trashed Nunis’s letters. Six union officials, who were arrested one night during a demonstration, sued Disneyland for $18 million over their arrests. Union officials briefly snuck into the park to distribute boycott leaflets to guests, until park officials forced them out. As workers planned to move the picket line to Nunis’s waterfront home in Laguna Beach, Disney offered a settlement. The striking unions agreed to allow wage freezes until the next negotiations, forgoing the 3 to 8 percent raises they initially demanded. Disney conceded to keeping health benefits for part-time workers.
King’s wages ended up frozen for the next six years, at around $10 an hour. (The Master Services unions would agree to freeze wages through the next two contract periods of three years each.). His next raise wouldn’t come until 1989, and he made up for it by working overtime. Many custodians had quit after the strike, which meant plenty of extra shifts to go around. King also worked extra jobs; some nights, he cleaned the press box at the Anaheim Pond, the stadium of the local hockey team, the Anaheim Ducks, named after the 1992 Disney movie The Mighty Ducks. “I didn’t get to see my kids as much as I would have liked,” he said.
Glynndana Shevlin grew up during the 1960s in a brick row house in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother, a nurse, worked full-time on the night shift to support the family. Her stepfather, paralyzed by an injury during World War II and unable to work, watched the kids, and his drinking habit strained the marriage. Glynndana cherished the weekends, when her mother made meatloaf and roasted chicken, and she and her brothers sat in front of the family’s black-and-white TV to watch shows like I Dream of Jeannie, The Monkees, and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.
Wonderful World of Color gave viewers glimpses into Disneyland, and Glynndana remembers watching an episode in 1968, when she was eight years old, in which Walt Disney unveiled a new attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean. Disney pointed out the new ride on a scale model of the park; standing beside him was a cheerful young woman, described as an “ambassador,” wearing a red vest and plaid skirt. I’d like to do a job like that, Glynndana thought.
When Glynndana was 16, her mother and stepfather divorced, and her mother moved to Southern California. Glynndana joined her a year later, and shortly after her arrival, on a drizzly late summer day, Glynndana’s mother took her to Disneyland for the first time. Her mother bought her a stuffed Mickey Mouse wrapped in plastic to stay dry, and Glynndana held it into the night as they waited for the Electrical Parade. When the music started, she and her mother danced on a corner along Main Street. “That was the moment that Disney meant more to me than just wanting to work there,” she said.
Glynndana interviewed for her first job at the park in 1988, for a cashier-hostess position at a restaurant inside the Disneyland Hotel. When a manager asked, “Why should we hire you, out of all the other applicants?” Glynndana replied, “Because even though I’m nervous, I smiled through this whole interview!” She got an offer an hour later, and started working the next day, making $4.50 an hour (around $9.50 today). By then, Glynndana was married to Pat, a manager at Toys R Us, and during her first year at Disneyland they bought a condo located five minutes from the park, paying $1,500 a month.
Like King, Glynndana’s union contract guaranteed a fixed raise every six months to a year. After three years, in 1991, Glynndana was promoted to work at the new E-Ticket Lounge in the hotel’s Adventure Tower. She kept the buffet bowls and fridges full, and befriended coworkers and guests. Over the years, she collected statues of Mickey and Minnie, plaques, and rare pins commemorating her service, which she displayed on a shelf at home.
After divorcing her husband in 1994, Glynndana moved to a nearby studio apartment, paying $450 a month. Some months, her wages added up to $1,200, sometimes $1,600, and her benefits included free union health insurance and meals at the cast member cafeteria. After contributing to retirement and other expenses, she had enough to put into savings and to go out with friends, line dancing at the Cowboy Boogie or singing karaoke at Sgt. Preston’s Yukon Saloon. When Christmas approached, Glynndana picked up a second job at a department store, or worked cleaning houses.
By 2008, Glynndana’s wages had increased to $13.70 an hour ($16.04 today). But living in Orange County had become more expensive over the years—in 2006, the average rent in the area was $1,458—which kept Glynndana’s budget tight. She eventually moved to a one-bedroom apartment which cost $800 a month. In 2011, she started paying $50 per month for health insurance as part of her union’s latest contract settlement with Disney. She stopped going out at night and started hunting for grocery bargains. She bought less fresh food, opting instead for cheaper, packaged options.
Standing beside Disney was a cheerful young woman, described as an “ambassador,” wearing a red vest and plaid skirt. I’d like to do a job like that, Glynndana thought.
Glynndana was one of a growing number of people living in Orange County in the 2000s who were just scraping by. The population had doubled since 1970, the median home value consistently ranked in the top one percent of all US counties, and the gap between the rich and poor was widening. By the late 2000s, the top 20 percent of households in the county accounted for almost half of total household income, while only 10 percent of households could afford a median-priced home, which was $629,200 in 2007. Meanwhile, more and more job openings in the county were for low-wage positions. Nearly half—44.7 percent—of the county’s adults living under the federal poverty line in 2008 were working full- or part-time. In 2012, 15 percent of the county’s residents with jobs worked in the tourism industry, making an average yearly salary of $23,707.
At Disneyland, Orange County’s largest employer, some 20,000 employees were welcoming a record number of visitors. After a slump in attendance tied to a recession in early 1990s, Disney executives started planning a $3 billion expansion to the park that would include a second theme park, new hotels, and retail and entertainment shops, with the hopes of turning Disneyland into a destination resort where guests would stay longer than a day. The company was also in the midst of expanding its footprint worldwide, opening a fourth park in Paris, planning a fifth in Hong Kong, and eventually a sixth in Shanghai. Attendance at the parks gradually picked up. By the time another financial crisis hit in 2007, Disney’s theme parks performed well enough that the company continued to report growth in earnings midway into 2008, outperforming the rest of the stock market by 7 percent. (A Wall Street investor wrote at the time that Disney’s theme parks would help the company ride through “Recessionland.”) Once the star of Walt Disney’s vision, Disneyland was now just one piece of the company’s expansive entertainment portfolio, which included vacation cruise lines, time-shares, and a growing list of television and film acquisitions—Miramax, ABC, Fox Family Network, Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm.
Despite the successes within the parent company, and perhaps in an effort to support them, spending gradually tightened at the Anaheim park. Disneyland superfans began to notice delays in attraction updates, lax maintenance, and a proliferation of cheap merchandise, fast food, and trash. A few fans even launched an online campaign to “take back Walt Disney’s Disneyland” and wrote open letters calling for the park president to resign.
For Disneyland cast members, the cutbacks manifested in shrinking benefits. In the late 1990s, park executives began negotiating for some union contracts to require that cast members pay for a share of their monthly health-insurance premiums. A series of other changes followed: in 2004, the park replaced its cast member cafeterias, which had served free meals to workers since the park opened, with third-party vendors. Around the same time, the park dismantled a four-tier employee category system that existed within some unions, which gave health insurance to those clocking 20 hours or more per week. Under a new two-tier system, anyone working less than 40 hours per week was no longer eligible for health benefits. Gradually, with each new union contract, the company replaced its pension plan with a 401(k), its contributions subject to negotiation. For at least one union, the company also began negotiating to replace fixed-wage increases with individual raises based on seniority. The cumulative effect was “like a frog in a boiling pot of water,” a former cast member told me. “By the time you realize what’s going on, it’s too late.”
Across the country, wages for most American workers, after adjusting for inflation, have remained flat since the late 1970s. Over three-and-a-half decades, workers making median wages saw their hourly pay increase slightly—by 6 percent—while workers making the lowest wages saw their pay decline by 5 percent. Disneyland’s cast members’ pay followed a similar trajectory. Even for those with fixed raises, their wages hardly kept up with inflation. Greg King retired as a custodian in May 2018, making $23 an hour after 51 years at Disneyland. After adjusting for inflation, this was about $2 less than the hourly wage he made in the early 1980s.
In 2014, Glynndana’s landlord raised the rent of her one-bedroom apartment from $800 to $1,500, more than half of her roughly $2,200 monthly income before taxes. Glynndana struggled to keep up with the soaring costs, and in May 2014, she was evicted for a late payment. Moving between the trailer, friends’ and family’s houses, the women’s shelter, and her car wore her down. She had trouble sleeping at night and started biting her nails from the stress. Her weight started to climb. In 2015, she started taking medication for her anxiety and manic episodes.
More than a dozen current and former cast members and union representatives who spoke to me for this story described similar struggles. Licensed cosmetologist Rebekah Pedersen, who constructs wigs and does makeup for the park’s character performers, spent three-and-a-half months living in her car after her landlord decided to sell the house she and her boyfriend were renting. She couldn’t find another place that was affordable on her $1,600 monthly income. Pedersen picked up a second job at a salon in Beverly Hills and stayed at her mother’s place in Lake Elsinore, with her boyfriend in Burbank, or in her car in Malibu. Each day, her commute took up to three hours. Last month, she started renting a room in a house located 3.5 miles from Disneyland with five other roommates.
Cooks Grace Torres and Edgar Campista, a married couple who both started working at Disneyland around 2014, a few years after graduating from culinary school, also lived out of their car for three months. They showered at work and took the bus or Uber when their car broke down. They’ve since moved into a small one-bedroom apartment a few miles from the park, after saving up and receiving help from Torres’s parents, who took out a loan to help pay for the deposit. They hope to have a baby soon but worry about their demanding schedules and keeping food on the table. Some nights they don’t get off work until 11 p.m., only to start the next day’s shift at 7 in the morning.
Another cast member who works at Disneyland as a princess—the iconic job in which she greets families and takes photographs in costume—started at the park after graduating college. She’s seen up to five princesses share a small apartment. The princess, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of losing her job, makes $16 an hour when interacting with guests in the park; during breaks, her pay drops to $10 an hour. Her biggest worry is health insurance. As a character actor, she’s not eligible to join a union, and as a part-time employee, she doesn’t qualify for Disney’s medical coverage.
The princess loves that her work involves hugging children and flexing her improv skills while talking to visitors. Guests often break into tears while telling her how the movie her character appears in changed their lives, helped them make amends with their family members, or gave them the confidence to pursue their dreams. But working as a princess comes with its costs. She and her coworkers often come down with infections, she told me—most often colds, pink eye, or ringworm—or get injured from kids pulling on their necks or tackling them. If a male guest requests her phone number or asks her out on a date, she’s learned to say, “We don’t have phones in our kingdom.” Once, a male guest grabbed her butt while taking a photo with her. She ignored it, not knowing what else to do, and later told the other girls about it in the break room. They told her if it happened again, she should say, “That’s not how you touch a princess.” (Disney did not respond to a query about how the company handles cast member allegations about inappropriate guest speech or behavior.) Some days she felt like the company prioritized profits over employee health. She often remembered what an older princess told her on the day she started her job: this is a corporation. We don’t make magic; we make money.
Across the street from Disneyland’s gates, in the California Adventure theme park, the overnight custodians have a running joke: once you get the “third-shift limp,” you’re officially part of the club. Vanessa Diaz developed hers in 2015 while cleaning Cars Land, a section of the park modeled after the Pixar film about an anthropomorphic race car lost in a desert town. Diaz worked the graveyard shift, which began after the last guest left around 11 p.m. By then she had been working at the park for three years, starting as a day custodian and making roughly $9 an hour. Every day, she left her apartment in Long Beach at 7 a.m. in order to have enough time to transfer buses and arrive for her 9 a.m. shift. She emptied garbage cans full of turkey legs, churros, and sodas, and rolled the bags across the park to the dumpster, some days in 100-degree weather. She mostly worked unnoticed, but once in a while a guest stopped her and asked her about the many Disney pins she wore on her uniform, and sometimes asked to trade their pins with her. When she finished sweeping her area, she liked to dip her broom in a pail of water and draw Mickey’s face on the concrete.
When Diaz switched to the graveyard shift—which paid 70 cents more per hour, and changed her status from part-time to full-time employee—she dragged around a 150-foot hose to power-wash the grounds; sometimes she would attach the hose to a fire hydrant and the water pressure would send her feet into the air. Her body ached from carrying the heavy hose, but it felt good knowing that she could keep a roof over her children. Pain, after all, was routine in these parts. Diaz often saw fellow custodians working with bandages wrapped around their hands or moving around on crutches. Once, she saw a custodian fall into the tracks of the Radiator Springs Racers ride and climb out with a bleeding knee. (Disney did not respond to a specific query about worker injuries for this story.) If no one got hurt, it was a good day.
Diaz averaged $350 a week—$310 after union dues and her insurance premium—which added up to an average of $14,500 in gross pay each year. She and her two kids shared a two-bedroom apartment with her parents in Long Beach. She preferred the third shift, which typically went from 11 at night until 5 in the morning, because it paid a little more, and she jumped at opportunities to work holidays for the same reason. When Disney’s paycheck wasn’t enough to support her and her children in 2016, she drove Uber and worked part-time taking mail orders at the See’s Candies call center. Some mornings she came home from California Adventure, slept two hours, and got her children ready for school, before heading to her second job. She took out loans for emergency car repairs and birthday presents.
After a few years at the park, Diaz grew accustomed to spending holidays at work instead of home. Around Christmas, she made reindeer candies and handed them out to the 150 or so other custodians working the season. When the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, she hugged her coworkers before calling her kids to show off the fireworks behind her. “That’s how you get so attached,” she told me. “If you ask everybody what was your favorite part of Disney, they’ll say, ‘It was the people I worked with’—not the job, not Disney, but the people you work with are family.”
In November 2016, the week after Thanksgiving, Diaz noticed that one of her coworkers in Cars Land, Yeweinisht Mesfin, had not shown up for her shift. Diaz and Mesfin got to know each other while cleaning Cars Land’s bathrooms together. “Those restrooms were spotless because of her,” Diaz said. She liked the way Mesfin, 61, called everyone “darling,” and admired how she never seemed to complain about her job or pay, no matter how much others did.
When she went missing, Diaz and a few other coworkers called her, shared posts on Facebook, and reported her disappearance to their supervisors. They called nearby hospitals and shelters. Mesfin’s relatives filed a police report. Twenty days later, Diaz received a text from one of Mesfin’s cousins: “We found her. She is passed. Thank you for all that you did.” Diaz and others later found out that Mesfin had been living in her car, sleeping most nights in the parking lot of a gym where she showered. She had suffered a heart attack. By the time a security guard found her in the driver’s seat, wearing exercise clothes and clutching her keys, she had been dead for several days. The following summer, Diaz quit her job.
When the survey taken by 5,000 Disneyland Resort workers was published in February 2018, the findings made national headlines. “By Day, a Sunny Smile for Disney Visitors. By Night, an Uneasy Sleep in a Car” read one in the New York Times. Glynndana and other cast members were featured on episodes of PBS NewsHour, Vice News Tonight, and a documentary by the Times. A few months later, around 2,000 cast members and members of the public gathered at a local arena for a rally featuring Senator Bernie Sanders. “The struggle that you are waging here in Anaheim is not just for you,” Sanders told the cheering crowd. “It is a struggle for millions of workers all across this country who are sick and tired of working longer hours for lower wages.”
The survey results convinced the unions that the traditional fixed-wage increases weren’t enough to keep pace with rising costs of living. To make a living wage in Orange County, a worker would need to make between $14.48 and $30.61 an hour, depending on the size of her household and the number of earners. Even California’s new minimum-wage law, which mandates a raise from the current rate of $11 to $15 by 2022, was not going to be enough. In the past 20 years, Disney had received subsidies, tax rebates, and other incentives from the city of Anaheim that totaled an estimated $1 billion. In that time, its workers made wages low enough to qualify for public benefits. “Essentially, this company is double-dipping on taxpayer dollars,” said Chris Duarte, head of Local 50 and the coalition of unions behind the survey.
In March, Disneyland’s union members started gathering signatures for a living-wage ballot initiative. If passed, the measure would create a city ordinance requiring local resort businesses to pay their workers a minimum of $15 per hour starting in January 2019, with a $1 per hour increase every year until 2022, annual increases thereafter to be based on cost-of-living adjustments. Citing polling data from June, the OC Weekly reported that 70 percent of Anaheim voters supported the living-wage measure.
Several Anaheim officials, including city councilwoman and longtime Disney proponent Kris Murray, have spoken out against the living-wage initiative, dubbing it a “job killer.” Disney has not commented publicly about the measure.
In July 2018, the company announced that it had reached an agreement with the four unions remaining in the master agreement to raise starting wages to $15 per hour. The agreement applies to 9,700 workers, about a third of the park’s total workforce. In September 2018, the company announced a tentative agreement with Unite Here Local 11, Glynndana’s union. In a press release, Disney said that “housekeepers immediately will receive $15.80/hour, with other minimum rate Cast Members moving to $15 in January, three years ahead of California’s minimum wage.” They also offered an hourly wage increase to $15.75 for non-union workers.
The company also surprisingly requested that Anaheim’s city council cancel $267 million in previously approved subsidies that would have funded a fourth hotel at its local resort, calling them “a flashpoint for controversy … in our community.” Some say the recent moves are politically motivated, to divert support for the more aggressive living-wage measure, which will be voted on by the public in November.
Glynndana’s union voted to approve Disney’s offer, raising her wages by $1 per hour. It will give her enough to save a little more than she does now, she told me. “Maybe I could have a steak once in while.”
On a sunny Monday morning in August, Glynndana got ready for work in a small studio apartment in La Habra, a 22-minute drive from Disneyland. A guest who had seen Glynndana on a segment of Vice News offered her the unit, an extension to her house, at a below-market rate. Glynndana got dressed and powdered her face to conceal the red marks left by her sleep mask, which the doctor had prescribed for her sleep apnea. Twenty of her Mickey and Minnie statues, her “pride and joys,” decorated one wall.
For lunch she decided to prepare some microwavable potatoes. In her mini fridge, she stored strips of chicken breast, a pint of ice cream, and a packet of asparagus she bought on sale. Above her doorway were the words: Dream. Believe. Discover.
In a few weeks, Glynndana would celebrate her 30th year at Disneyland, for which she would receive a coveted bronze statuette of Jiminy Cricket. In a few months, she’ll turn 60. She’s been putting away for retirement, 15 percent from each paycheck, or roughly $55. If she retires, she’ll go back to the lounge to visit her coworkers and tell them what it’s like to be a part of the Golden Ears, the club for park retirees that meets for lunches and overnight trips. With her lifetime pass, she’ll bring friends and family members to the park for free.
Before making lunch for the day, she petted her cats, Suzie and Sally. She looked out her window at the trees flowering purple and pink, the neighbors walking their dogs, the white picket fence across the street. She told me she was still the eight-year-old girl who wanted to make magic for everybody and then come home to a house and a TV.
For now, Glynndana had $120 left in her checking account. By Wednesday, she would be down to $80, after fixing a flat tire. With any luck, she would make it to Thursday—when another paycheck would replenish her account to $202.80 after taxes and saving $135 toward rent—and then into the next week, the one week of the month when she didn’t have major bills to pay, when she’d take her car in to get serviced. It would cost her $201.80.