Cast Members Make the Magic, but They Want You To Know Working for Disney Isn’t Always Magical

in Disney, Disneyland Resort, Walt Disney World

Cast Members cheer on Main Street, U.S.A. in Disneyland Paris

Credit: Disney

Just this past week, cast members at the Disneyland Resort voted to unionize, becoming the last group of Disney cast members to do so. The costumed workers at Disneyland voted to join their fellow workers at the Walt Disney World Resort and join the Actor’s Equity Association. 

A group of Disneyland cast members, dressed in red and blue plaid vests and blue face masks, line both sides of a street, waving to guests who are walking towards the camera.
Credit: Disney

This was a significant step forward for Disneyland Resort workers. It follows protests by Disney World cast members last year, which ultimately ended in a new contract for workers at the Central Florida Resort.

But what are these workers fighting for? The easy answer is money. Of course, everyone would like to be paid more for their work.

However, the honest answer is much more complicated than that. Each Disney cast member has their own story about what working for The Walt Disney Company means to them and what they hope to gain from Magic United.

In the lead-up to the union vote, cast members were allowed to tell their stories and what they hoped to get out of joining a union. But more importantly, it gave the public a glimpse into what it was really like to be a Disney cast member and helped to make the magic for guests every day.

Cast Members in Their Own Words

During the run-up to its union election, Magic United released a video detailing some of the harrowing experiences of Disneyland Cast Members and the injuries they experienced working to bring the magic to guests. But the video also showed their love of working at the Disneyland Resort and how much joy it brought them to make someone’s day.

But despite the joy they found in their jobs, many of them were concerned about their safety and their ability to pay their bills.

One cast member said: 

The magic starts to fade away and you’re just left with not being able to pay rent, permanent injuries, and management who doesn’t value or respect you.

Nearly all of the costumed cast members at Disneyland have some sort of injury from the outfits they wear during parades or shows. Still, others have to spend hours in a makeup chair to live up to the idea of the character they are pretending to be.

Mickey Mouse in the Paint the Night parade at Disneyland Resort
Credit: Jeremy Wong via Flickr

Another cast member said: 

Seeing the people around you that you are about feeling like they honestly do not have an escape or a way out of the situation because they love what they do, they want to be here, but it is rarely sustainable for people. 

Cast member Courtney Griffin has worked at Disneyland since 2015 as a parade performer. She started working at the Disneyland Resort right out of high school.

In some ways, Griffin was born into Disneyland. Her parents met while working as cast members, and her mother worked in the Electrical Parade, just like she would do decades later.

Griffin’s mother was forced to quit working at Disneyland because the princess costume she wore was starting to cut through her arms, leaving her bleeding and with lifelong scars. Griffin has also suffered back and shoulder injuries while working as a performing at Disneyland, including one shoulder injury that made her “instantly start crying.”

Toy Story green army men
Credit: Disney

Despite these stories, most cast members continue working at Disneyland because they love the job and making people happy while portraying a character. However, their hope for unionizing is to make a living wage.

Wages at Disneyland

The average salary for a Disneyland cast member is $22 an hour, with some making as much as $25. If a cast member works a 40-hour week at the Disneyland Resort, they will earn $45,760 a year before taxes and medical insurance.

Cast members and maintenance workers have sued Disney at the Disneyland Resort. They claim the company has skirted California’s minimum wage laws for decades and owes them millions in back pay. Disney has denied any wrongdoing in its dealings with its maintenance workers.

Lawsuits aside, Southern California is one of the most expensive places to live in America. Anaheim is particularly expensive.

The average cost of living in Anaheim for a single person is $68,814, which is nine percent higher than the average in California and 51 percent higher than the national average.

Mickey's Fun Wheel and Incredicoaster on Pixar Pier at Disneyland Resort's California Adventure
Credit: Brandi Alexandra via Unsplash

Most Disneyland cast members can’t afford to live near the park, so they sometimes have to drive 90 minutes to two hours to find affordable housing. With Southern California traffic, that drive time can sometimes double.

Sometimes, it is more convenient for cast members to sleep in their cars rather than drive home and have to return eight hours later for their next shift.

With cast members making more than $20,000 less than what is needed to live in Anaheim, most have second jobs either in the morning or at night after they finish their shift at Disneyland. But even that has become difficult.

Griffin said:

So most of our parade performers work somewhere else in the morning, but then Disneyland will schedule your rehearsals at 10 or 11 a.m. even though the actual shift that you would be working once the parade is open is at 1:30. So, somehow you’re supposed to get your other job or school to let you out in the morning. 

Cast members hope that joining a union will alleviate some of the issues they currently face at the Disneyland Resort, but that is not guaranteed.

Mickey Mouse in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle
Credit: Disney

Related: Disney Worked Behind the Scenes to Pass Florida Law That Strips Cast Members of Basic Human Rights

Disney World Cast Members

Being a Walt Disney World cast member has some of the same problems: low pay and difficult working conditions. However, cast members in Central Florida have been members of the Actor’s Equity Association, which has been getting them better working conditions.

However, while Southern California has issues, Central Florida has them based on location. Unlike their counterparts at Disneyland, cast members at the Walt Disney World Resort have to deal with extreme heat, humidity, and hurricanes.

Recently, the Florida Legislature, with some help from The Walt Disney Company, passed a law eliminating any local heat restrictions. This means that Lake Buena Vista cannot mandate that Disney World cast members take water breaks throughout their shifts.

Related: After Criminalizing Homeless Disney World Cast Members, Florida Wants to Make it Easier to Put Them in Mental Hospitals

Florida has also passed a series of laws that allows Walt Disney World to hire teenagers for dangerous jobs and lets high school students work more than 30 hours a week and later than 11 p.m. on school days.

But much like their counterparts in California, Disney World cast members desperately need affordable housing. By some estimates, as many as 10 percent of Disney World cast members are homeless or living out of their cars.

Even that has become contentious in Florida. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature have criminalized the homeless by making it illegal to sleep in public spaces.

Last year, Disney World cast members won a contentious agreement with Disney that won them $20 an hour, but even that isn’t enough. The cost of living in Central Florida is five percent higher than the national average of $46,645 for a single adult.

Disney cast members posing in a frame that reads "we are the magic"
Credit: Disney

Related: Banned From Sleeping in Their Cars, Disney World Cast Members Can Live in Other People’s Garage

Solutions?

Abigail Disney, heir to the Disney name and granddaughter of Roy Disney, has said in the past that there is a simple solution to these problems: pay each Disney worker more.

Even that isn’t very easy. The Walt Disney Company will undoubtedly add that wage increase to your next visit to a Disney Park. How much more could they add to an already expensive trip? Do you really want to find out?

Every Disney worker can hope that the company will do the right thing, but from these stories, it’s hard to believe that’s true.

A crowd of people gather around the statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse in front of Cinderella's Castle at Disney World. The castle is adorned in blue and gold spires, while the people wear various casual outfits, enjoying the lively atmosphere of the park.
Credit: Nicholas Fuentes, Unsplash

So, it comes down to an incremental battle for higher wages and better working conditions. Hopefully, each day can be a step in the right direction.

Next time you head to a Disney Park, be good to the cast members. You just never know what they’ve been through.

How would you fix the issues facing Disney cast members? 

in Disney, Disneyland Resort, Walt Disney World

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