Cupboards Bare Jamboree

Photo by Jack GouldI still remember the day I got hired at Disneyland in 1979. The cheerful woman who interviewed me pointed her Mickey Mouse pencil at the locks flowing below my shoulders and the beard I had cultivated over the summer in Hawaii and said, "You'll have to cut your hair and shave that off."

"Good," I lied. "I've been wanting to."

My Olivier-like performance in the interview and at the orientation session known as Disney University—think of the indoctrination scene in The Manchurian Candidate, only the Chinese commies are replaced by a Goofy cartoon—determined the degree of contact I'd have with the public.

I wound up in the parking lot.

The 100 acres of black asphalt directly in front of the Main Street entrance was about the farthest possible point a "cast member" could get from the "Disney Experience" in which our bright orange-and-yellow shirts and blue polyester long pants were a "costume," the brainless tourists "guests" and a scorching summer day a "performance."

To preserve the precious Disney Experience, those of us with dicks had to be clean-shaven. I learned this lesson one day when I arrived for my shift at the Happiest Place on Earth only to be sent back to the locker room for violating the no-stubble policy. I had 10 minutes to find a razor, clear my face of whiskers, and return back to my post or it'd be time to say goodbye to all my company.

But the female supervisor who lowered the boom had more facial hair than I did. And, of course, company founder Walt Disney had a mustache. He instituted the short-hair and do-as-I-say, not-as-I-unshave rule in 1957 because he wanted to change America's image of amusement parks from sleazy carnivals to wholesome, family environments. Out with inbred carnies; in with the Up With People tenor section.

The facial-hair ban lasted until March 29, when the company allowed "neatly trimmed" (and fully grown) mustaches. Beards are still verboten, and the hair on one's head must still be cropped over the ears and off the collar. Disney officials called the 'stache allowance further evolution of its 43-year-old "appearance code." Others rightly agree it's a calculated move to do what would seem to be impossible anywhere other than the Magic Kingdom: simultaneously increase the labor pool while keeping wages down.

Orange County's unemployment rate hovers at a mere 2.3 percent—half the statewide rate—at a time when Disneyland is experiencing chronic labor shortages. Scores of workers must be hired for the busy summer season and 5,000 new positions at Disney's second Anaheim theme park, California Adventure, which is scheduled to open in early 2001. After that, more warm bodies will be sought for the Downtown Disney shopping/ entertainment mall and the Disney Grand Californian Hotel.

The relaxed facial-hair rule comes precisely at the time when Disney needs more workers. But it's ridiculous to think it's going to have much effect on recruiting the park's traditional core group: college-age types who aren't likely to be taken in by the Disney Experience shit—mustache or no mustache—when they can get a job at Starbucks for the same money and not have to shave their goatees, graft their tattoos, or remove the barbells from their tongues, all of which are still prohibited under the appearance code.

Indeed, Disney is really looking at another set of workers when it relaxes its grooming standards: male, Latino, first-generation immigrants. Since there are so many low-paying jobs glutting the market right now, these men can afford to be choosier—and keep their mustaches. The company reasons that by allowing them to keep the hair above their lips—neatly trimmed, of course; Poncho Villa need not apply—more will drop applications off at the park.

Disney officials publicly deny this. The changes are part of just keeping up with the times, they insist.

Keeping up with the times? How about keeping up with the cost of living?

Cast members who belong to the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Local 681, which represents 3,000 park workers toiling at the tourist feeding troughs, earn $5.50 per hour to start, receive no benefits and must work weekends and holidays. Those who attain permanent status earn $7.50 per hour. That rate rises gradually every year until topping off at $10.06 per hour after six full years as a permanent employee. This wage scale is pretty standard throughout the park.

"If we worked at the McDonald's across the street, we'd be paid the exact same amount, have more flexible hours, benefits and a more relaxed grooming policy," said Steve Valkenburg, a 20-year Disney employee and Local 681 member.

The mantra repeated over and over when I worked at the park was that we should consider it a privilege we were chosen to work for near-minimum wages at Disneyland. Being paid comensurate with one's contribution to the vaunted Disney Experience would go a lot farther in creating a large labor pool, while also making it a privilege to work at the Mousetrap That Walt Built.


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