By Matt Coker
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By Charles Lam
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With roughly 80 employees and a 240-person seating capacity, Disneyland Hotel's Goofy's Kitchen is the hotel's largest and busiest restaurant. It offers patrons an opportunity to eat among roaming Disney characters—such as Pluto, Snow White and, of course, the eponymic, buck-toothed dog—who gather near the buffet bar and entertain by singing and dancing the macarena.
Despite the festive atmosphere, current and former restaurant employees say the cafeteria-style restaurant is plagued by rats, rat feces and toxic mold.
Four employees filed workman's-compensation claims against Disney in October 2001 and January 2002 citing chronic illnesses from dust and various forms of airborne mold. Disney categorically denies the claims. (Disney spokesman Ray Gomez could not be reached for comment by press time.) In a letter to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH), Disney officials declared they could find no evidence of mold or rat feces. Responding to that letter in March, DOSH officials ruled Disney's response "satisfactory" and closed its file on Goofy's Kitchen.
In July, Local 681 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, which represents Disney workers, filed a grievance on behalf of restaurant employees, claiming that Disney has failed to maintain health and safety standards.
The grievance makes no claim that restaurant patrons were exposed to unhealthy conditions. But it does say that on July 26, 2001, Disney engineers "had to take a pipe out of the wall in Station One to get a dead rat out. The rat was so deteriorated [that] when it was pulled out, its tail [fell] off. This incident took place while servers and bus help were still working."
The union claim also says two of the restaurant's three side stations—food and drink preparation areas attached to the kitchen—had no ventilation.
"It's gross," said a current restaurant employee who asked to remain anonymous. "There are still rats and rat shit everywhere. This summer, they found one of the biggest rats I've seen. It had to be almost a foot long.
"It always smells funny in the kitchen. You get a headache when you work there, your nose starts dripping, and you end up with these horrible sinus infections and have to go to the doctor all the time. I have never had allergies before, and now I've been to the hospital, and I have to take allergy medications every day."
Margie Strike, labor representative with the California School Employees Association, worked as a food server at the restaurant between 1987 and 1998. She said conditions inside Goofy's Kitchen became worse about five years ago when the restaurant—originally called Stromboli's—was remodeled and renamed.
"When they started all this expansion at Disneyland, it brought us all the rats," Strike said. "There were also roaches and worms."
One of the workers who has filed a workman's-compensation claim against Disney, Strike says she became chronically ill while working at Goofy's Kitchen and has had two operations for a tumor on her mouth that she blames on toxic mold inside the restaurant.
"I have felt better since I stopped working there," she said. "But I still get these allergic reactions and sinus problems that I never had before."
Another former employee who has filed a claim against Disney made up to $500 per day in tips alone but quit the lucrative job for medical reasons in July 2001. Cynthia Hanel worked as a food server, core trainer, cast liaison and media host at Disneyland, but she says she couldn't take the associated health problems. She says she complained about mold, rats and backed-up kitchen sinks and that management responded by telling employees to pour bleach down the drains. Because of poor ventilation, she alleges, the bleach remedy caused her and other workers to suffer chronically itchy eyes, nausea and headaches.
Hanel's workman's-compensation claim against Disney alleges that she has tested positive for exposure to several types of mold. Hanel said doctors removed from her sinus cavity a malignant tumor caused by unsanitary conditions.
"I'm in incredible pain," she said. "I sleep with a back brace, an arm brace and an elbow brace; it hurts to lift a cup of coffee to my mouth; it hurts to brush my teeth."
Silvia Nava worked at the restaurant until she quit last year. Because she worked as hostess and not a food server, she said she didn't spend much time in the kitchen or side station areas, but she saw rats.
"They were killing them every night when I was doing paperwork," she said. She said many rats were captured in sticky traps, though sometimes the rodents escaped by chewing off their own legs.
Nava said she knew many kitchen workers who suffered chronic respiratory problems but said most were too afraid to complain.
"They don't want any problems with the management," she said. "Disney is a big company, and none of the workers want to lose their jobs."