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If Disneyland is Orange County’s ultimate paean to wholesome leisure, a place Walt Disney famously described as “this happy place” upon introducing his theme park to the world in 1955, then the nearby Grand Californian Hotel is the company’s Cathedral of Happy.
It’s like an orange-crate label come to life, re-creating a Golden State long-gone and never really in existence the minute people enter, its 750 rooms squeezed together so the sprawling resort seems as comfy as the Craftsman-era lodgings it mimics, from the wooden crossbeams that soar above the heads of guests to the giant stained-glass sliding doors at the entrance. On a recent Friday night, the Grand Californian’s massive lobby buzzed with happy: foreign tourists who packed too many suitcases and local couples checking in for a romantic weekend; convention-goers calling it a night; and day-trippers taking a break to stroll through the hotel and gaze at this ornate Fantasyland they’ll never be able to afford.
Everywhere one turned were Disney’s so-called cast members, the work force that famously dives into mundane tasks with the enthusiasm of a tween riding the Matterhorn for the fifth time in a day. From the saucy British woman at the bar in the award-winning Napa Rose restaurant to servers in the Storytellers Café lugging plates, from parking attendants dressed in newsboy caps and vests to the janitor who speaks English as a second language, the Grand Californian’s team was a model of efficiency and cheer, seamlessly engaging with guests while doing its assigned duties.
“Is your favorite ride Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters?” one tall, mid-30s receptionist asked a young girl, the roar of the nearby California Screamin’ roller coaster audible in the dusk. “Awesome! That’s mine, too!” They bumped fists.
Everything is obsessively, just-so perfect—except for two double doors.
Just a couple of steps outside the Grand Californian’s lobby, two doors marked “CAST MEMBERS ONLY” stand in a nook. About every five minutes—sometimes more often—someone would open the doors to enter or exit, unleashing a blinding halogen light at odds with the amber hues favored by the Grand Californian. By this time, the smiles had faded, and a new look stretched across these off-the-clock faces: fatigue.
It’s not just the Great Recession weighing on the workers, all of whom belong to Unite Here Local 11, the union that represents the Disneyland Resort’s 2,100-plus hotel employees. For the past two years, the Grand Californian’s staff and their colleagues at the Disneyland and Paradise Pier hotels have labored without a contract, costing them pay raises and a sense of security. It’s been a conscious decision on their part: They’ve spurned Disney’s offers, claiming the company wants to eradicate their health benefits and raises while increasing their workload. Many of those same happy cast members who so assiduously help Disney guests while on the clock have publicly called the Mouse a louse through protests, hunger strikes, fliers, blogs and YouTube clips. Disney, in turn, is dismissing the union as ungrateful, its leadership as troublemaking, furious that it dares to introduce class conflict into the Happiest Place on Earth—and maintaining Disney must eliminate Unite Here’s health plan in order to save it.
The hotel workers understand the enormity of their stand-off—it’s Disneyland, for chrissakes.
“The world thinks we should go to hell for taking on Disney,” says Eddie Chavez, a bellman at the Disneyland Hotel for nearly 24 years. “That’s okay. We need to do what we need to do to survive.”
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Glynndana Shevlin has a name reminiscent of a mid-1960s Disney movie character, as well as the personality to match: cherubic and soft-spoken except when talking about her affinity for all things Disney, at which point she nods in excitement like a bobblehead. She has worked at the resort for 22 years, now in the Disneyland Hotel’s E-Ticket Club, an exclusive concierge lounge for more-affluent guests.
“I have more Disney memorabilia in my house than you can find at a Disney store. I really believed in the Pixie dust,” Shevlian says while sipping from a plastic cup emblazoned with the iconic silhouette of Mickey Mouse’s head. “But I became disillusioned with them. Their public face—which they try so hard to protect—is not the face that we see or deal with on a daily basis.”
Nearly a century of collective experience at Disneyland’s hotels has gathered at the offices of Unite Here Local 11 to blast its employer. If the workplace environment is a dreamscape, the local is cramped and utilitarian: an office suite in the Orange County Labor Center, a drab complex located off the 22 freeway in Garden Grove that serves as the regional headquarters for dozens of unions. They sit around a table; behind them, hundreds of picket signs stick out of containers. “Disney is Unfaithful,” reads one. “Work Shouldn’t Hurt,” reads another. Nearly all of them use Disney’s famous cursive font to illustrate their charges.