Disneyland Resort Workers Are the True Magic-Makers, But a Survey Shows Many Toil in Poverty

Disney Dining lead June Mekker poses with a symbol of the Happiest Place On Earth. Photo by Javier Castellanos

People waiting to zoom around Autopia’s enclosed track in gasoline-powered mini Hondas were fidgeting as the line crawled to a stop one evening at Disneyland. A lone Latino custodian whisked through the queue, sweeping up any scraps of trash into a dustpan. Before the next row of loudly chugging two-seaters departed, he vanished, leaving behind an immaculately kept Tomorrowland attraction while being a bother to no one.

Parkgoers may have paid the “cast member” (as Disney calls its employees) little mind that evening, but a newly formed nine-member Coalition of Resort Labor Unions, representing 17,000 out of nearly 30,000 Disneyland Resort workers, wanted to know all about his well-being, as well as that of thousands just like him, inside and outside of the House of the Mouse. “You are not alone,” a coalition flier declared in September. “Every day, Disney cast members stress over bills. The choices Disney makes—in determining pay, insurance and other benefits—affects you and thousands more cast members. But how many people know the truth?”

The Disneyland Resort Worker survey promised complete anonymity online, and 5,000 workers participated. Occidental College and the Economic Roundtable gathered the data and are set to discuss the findings of “Working for the Mouse: A Survey of Disneyland Employees” during a town hall this afternoon at the Anaheim Sheraton.

Among the troublesome reveals, the study found that more than 85 percent of Disneyland workers make less than $15 per hour, a wage that makes for a host of economic hardships in an increasingly expensive county. The report also found 11 percent of workers who participated reported being “homeless—or not having a place of their own to sleep—in the past two years.” Another 36 percent on the resort’s health-insurance plan forgo necessities to pay monthly premiums.

All of this is happening while the “Happiest Place On Earth” increases its profitability. Park attendance is up, as are ticket sales. According to the report, Disneyland raked in $3 billion in 2016 alone. Meanwhile, wages for Disney workers are declining when adjusted for inflation. The survey makes the case for raising the wage floor to $20 per hour to alleviate the suffering—something that would cost Disney 5.7 percent of its projected 2018 theme park revenues.

But beyond the statistics is the human face of the Disneyland Resort: the musician who sings Disney classics on Main Street, the baker who dips apples in caramel under the gaze of hungry eyes, landscapers who toil after dark and custodians who sweep away any trace of debris. They’re proud to do this work to make our visits magical.

Christopher Buck: “I wish Disney would acknowledge us employees more. We take pride in our own work.” Photo by Javier Castellanos

Custodial Worker, Disney California Adventure Park, SEIU-USWW
Sporting a heavy, Disneyland-embroidered jacket and matching blue beanie to protect against the morning cold, Buck clocks out of work at 7:40 a.m. By that time, the mouse-eared masses are beginning to file in from Harbor Boulevard for an early start at the theme parks. For those who’ll pass through the gates of California Adventure, an immaculate day of amusement awaits, thanks to the night-shift work of Buck and his fellow custodians.

“We’re the ones that make the magic,” Buck says. “We hose down the park, clean restrooms, kitchens and attractions.” The hardest part of any given graveyard shift is when he has to pull a heavy 150-foot hose down the parade route with 300 pounds per square inch of water pressure. And then there’s “Code V,” which entails cleaning up vomit from a guest who probably should’ve thought twice before going on Guardians of the Galaxy. But all the theme park’s grime is gone by morning. “Everything’s spotless,” he says. “Not a spick or speck.”

But the cost of cleanliness is apparent in Buck’s weary face, which looks aged beyond his 35 years. This June, he’ll mark a decade of custodial work at California Adventure, which has left his health—both medical and financial—in a beleaguered state. Five years ago, a doctor diagnosed Buck with Type 1 diabetes. The night shift made him vulnerable to the early onset. “The other half of it was I was drinking a lot of Monsters to stay awake,” he says. One morning after work, diabetes and fatigue got the best of Buck, and he totaled his car in Anaheim after falling asleep at the wheel. His blood-sugar levels topped 500—a dangerous mark.

That day, he was headed 114 miles east toward Barstow, where his wife and 9-year-old daughter live in a home they rent for $900 per month. The family of three previously had an apartment in Stanton but were evicted six years ago. With Buck making a little more than $12 per hour, Orange County is unaffordable. He stays with his father in nearby Garden Grove during the workweek to avoid an impossible commute. Once a month, he spends four hours on a bus to get to his family.

“When I was on vacation last year, I took my daughter to the bus stop for school,” he says, his tired eyes welling with tears. “When I came back after vacation, she told me over the phone, ‘Daddy, I miss you taking me to the bus stop.’”

Even with all the hardships, it could be worse. Buck recounts the loss of Weiny Mesfin, a beloved 61-year-old California Adventure custodial colleague and friend, about two years ago. “She was living in her car because she couldn’t afford an apartment,” he says. Police found her body while parked in front of a gym in Orange after going missing on Thanksgiving Day. “She was a hard worker and a sweetheart. We miss her.”

Buck believes the Mouse has lost its way, a contention he backs with family history. “My great-great-grandfather was the first security guard at Disneyland,” he says with pride. “Walt Disney wrote him a letter for the whole family, saying they were all invited for the grand opening.” Buck’s uncle and aunt also had successful careers working for the resort. “Pretty much, my whole life I’ve been coming to Disneyland for free,” Buck says. “It was great back then!” He figured he’d follow in the family tradition and work his way up.

But things haven’t turned out as planned. “I wish Disney would acknowledge us employees more,” Buck says. “We take pride in our own work.”

Better health benefits and pay, plus lower food costs at worker cafŽés would go a long way to making the “magic-makers” happier.

He lauds Walt Disney as a man who once said he’d use a good idea from a janitor if he had one. “If Walt Disney was still around,” Buck says, “none of this would be happening.”

Karen Dist makes barely enough to help cover the weekly cost of the hotel room she shares with her daughter and two grandchildren. Photo by Javier Castellanos

Food Prep, Café Orleans Disneyland, Workers United Local 50
If Disneyland is the “Happiest Place On Earth,” Dist is just thankful to have a roof over her head. The rundown west Anaheim motel she calls home isn’t ideal, but it’s stable for now. After finishing a full day of food prep at Disneyland’s CafŽé Orleans, the 60-year-old grandmother pulls up a plastic lawn chair outside the room she shares with her daughter and two grandchildren. Dressed in black pinstriped workpants and a white double-breasted chef’s coat, Dist wraps a blanket over her shoulders like a shawl.

“A lot of times, we lived in motels, and we’d have to do check-outs every 30 days,” Dist says. She called out of work each time to gather her belongings in search of a new Anaheim motel to stay at for another month. When that didn’t happen, the family slept in cars or, sometimes, out in the cold. It wasn’t always like this for Dist; she lived with her mother in Lakewood when she started at Disneyland in 2006, but five years later, her mother died and more hardships came.

At $13 per hour, Dist’s pay barely crawls above the number of years she’s worked at Disneyland. At the New Orleans Square restaurant, she preps the famed Cajun-creole cuisine, including the beloved Monte Cristo sandwich. It’s clear Dist enjoys making crostinis most, as she describes cutting loaves of bread, bathing them in the right amount of oil, then seasoning them to salt-and-pepper perfection. But the menu recently changed, and she’s had to take on job responsibilities once reserved for dinner cooks. “It’s a lot of stress because there’s a lot more work to be done,” Dist says. “I’d rather prep enough for two or three days.”

Dist’s pay is enough to help cover the $260 weekly cost of the single room, but just barely. She’s left with only $60 to $80 at the end of the month. With diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, Dist has seven medications to manage against the costs of rent and food. The math doesn’t always work out, not even with the cash she’ll get for recycling the bag of collected cans that’s tied up by the door.

Workers United Local 50 hosts a food pantry once a month for employees who struggle with hunger despite working at the theme park’s restaurants. “I use it every so often,” Dist says. “When we have money, we stock up on all kinds of frozen foods. Disney doesn’t have anything like that. They throw away so much food it’s ridiculous.”

And if a manager sees Dist so much as using a tasting spoon to sample an item during food prep, she faces being fired.

Dist looks back when her daughter, wearing a hoodie with Stich from Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, pulls up to the motel in a car. The Dist family prefers the affordability of Knott’s Berry Farm these days, she says. They got shut out of Disneyland during Christmastime, once a perk enjoyed by workers that got restricted to California Adventure this December. “I just let my tickets expire,” Dist says. “Who knows if they’re going to take it away completely?” She spent New Year’s Eve at Knott’s instead.

A recent fall left lacerations on her feet, and Dist only recently returned to work after being without pay for five weeks. Standing all day on concrete floors instead of mats only serves to exacerbate the pain. “I live from one day to the next,” she says. “I hurt so bad.”

June Mekker: “The company forgets that it’s the people at the bottom that make the magic for the guests to come back.” Photo by Javier Castellanos

Disney Dining Lead, Disneyland Hotel, Unite Here Local 11
A brick design of mouse ears stands out from the front lawn of Mekker’s Anaheim home. Inside, the living room is like a little World of Disney store, with an Incredibles DVD stacked atop other blue-cased Disney films, framed drawings of Mickey Mouse and a Yoda figurine watching over all. Ironically, it’s a world apart from the windowless basement office of the Disneyland Hotel, where Mekker works as a Disney Dining lead, fielding reservations for the resort’s famed eateries among other inquiries. “That’s the only place I don’t see all this,” Mekker says, with a laugh.

The memorabilia belongs to Josh, a 26-year-old with autism who lives at the house with his mother, Mekker and her mother. He hands a printout of a video he’s working on about their recent vacation to Walt Disney World in Orlando. Mekker helped to make a little Disney magic with Josh when he was 12 years old and she worked at the Anaheim theme park. “I worked at the Snow White show, and I used to save him a seat in the front row,” she says. “I can’t come home and say, ‘The magic world that you see doesn’t treat your magical friend very well.’”

The 59-year-old knows that all too well as she takes Norco pills three times per day to treat the lingering pain from a back injury she sustained at the park. “I headed for my lunch break, walking down Matterhorn Way one day in 2005,” she says. “Out of the clear blue, a lady just broadsides me with an electric convenience vehicle.” Mekker reported to Cast Health, who sent her home with ibuprofen, but the injury didn’t go away; her foot started going numb.

An orthopedic surgeon recommended surgery for two bulging disks in her lower back. Mekker didn’t get to the operating table until four years later, when, she says, Disney finally approved the surgery under worker’s compensation. But she returned to the hospital within a week for another surgery; one of the disks risked lacerating her intestines, which would lead to death from internal bleeding. Mekker took a year to recuperate and had to relearn how to walk.

The company let her know she would be reassigned or risk being fired. That’s when Mekker started work as a Disney dining lead. “You don’t know if a guest is going to be happy to talk to you or screaming at you,” she says.

Disney wants an 85 percent “call capture” rate, but the demand has become more burdensome with fewer workers. “Most of my department is down there because of their medical needs or because of their ageism,” Dekker adds. Workers are only afforded a few seconds between calls and have to ask permission to use the restroom.

Mekker started at Disneyland because she held annual passports with her late husband, a longshoreman whose union benefits continue to help take care of her after his death. Even still, she rented rooms and lived at a Motel 6 in between evictions until befriending Beth, Josh’s mother, who anchors the mortgage on their Anaheim home. Now, she makes $15 per hour. “You can’t live on it,” Mekker says. If not for Beth, she’d be living with her mother in Cherry Valley, more than 70 miles away from the Disneyland Resort.

Retirement benefits aren’t much, either. “I’m going to get $50 a month,” Mekker says in a whisper. “The company forgets that it’s the people at the bottom that make the magic for the guests to come back.”

Veronica Chavez hustles between a full-time job as a hotel housekeeper and side jobs, but she still comes up short financially. Photo by Javier Castellanos

Housekeeper, Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel, Unite HERE Local 11
“I never imagined I’d be working at Disneyland,” Chavez says in Spanish. The 35-year-old housekeeper at the Grand Californian Hotel immigrated to the United States as a teenager from Jalisco, Mexico. The theme park seemed like a distant, far-off place, but when she arrived in OC and married a U.S. citizen, it was one of the first places she asked to go. “For me, it was magical.”

Chavez saw a job listing for the hotel in 2010 and started at $11 per hour. Now, when she opens the door to her Anaheim apartment after work, she’s greeted by monthly bills laid out neatly on the kitchen countertop. “I live paycheck to paycheck,” Chavez says. “Sometimes, I wake up suffering from panic attacks, worrying how I’m going to make rent.” A single mother of three, she pays $1,800 per month for her two-bedroom apartment just outside the resort and across the street from the city’s largest barrio.

The hardships for housekeepers aren’t solely economical. “When I’m working as a housekeeper, I have to clean 13 rooms in eight hours,” Chavez says. The high-end hotel recently remodeled rooms to offer more luxurious accommodations, which require deeper cleaning. She claims that with the remodeling, workplace injuries have multiplied. “It’s very common for us to take Advil or Tylenol every day,” Chavez says.

Thankfully, the tourists are amiable enough—even the occasional celebrity, such as Johnny Depp. “I made the bed with him there in the room,” Chavez says of Captain Jack Sparrow himself. “He was very nice and didn’t act like a star.”

At one point, after suffering health problems, Chavez was temporarily reassigned to greet guests at Disneyland. “I was out for about four months with carpel tunnel,” she says.

Chavez is able to earn a bit more when getting shifts as a trainer and supervisor. Last month, she took a leave of absence to do a little training of her own as an organizer with Unite HERE Local 11. The union is currently locked in a battle with the resort company over a new contract. “I need to do my part to see what can change,” she says, as she sports a union button on her beige sweater. “Hopefully, we’ll negotiate a fair contract with a dignified wage.”

Until then, she continues to work overtime at the hotel on weekends when her children are with their father, and used to pick up side jobs doing office cleaning when possible.

Even with all the hustle, Chavez still comes up short. She has been on food stamps despite having a full-time job.

This past Christmas, Chavez couldn’t afford to buy presents for her children. Friends chipped in to throw a party for her son’s December birthday and brought Christmas gifts, too. “I didn’t have money for even a cake, and that was depressing,” she says. “In housekeeping, the majority of workers are Latinas. We need to be respected. This work is very hard, and few can endure it.”

Deserea Parrish has been priced out of room rents while prepping Disney princesses. Photo by Javier Castellanos

Hair & Makeup Artist, Disneyland Resort, Local 706 IATSE Makeup Artists & Hair Stylists Guild
The Main Street Electrical Parade returned to Disneyland last year in all its shimmering grandeur. Parrish looked on from the route one night with her family. Being a hair-and-makeup artist at the theme park, parade performers gave her a knowing wave. “I looked back at my mom, and she was crying,” Parrish says.

“You’re doing what you’ve always dreamed about doing,” her mom told her.

Originally from Lubbock, Texas, Parrish left the hometown of rock & roll legend Buddy Holly to be closer to Walt Disney’s kingdom. As a child, she visited her grandparents in West Covina during summer vacations that always included trips to Disneyland. The first time, Parrish ran excitedly into the arms of Mickey Mouse, one of many pleasant memories of an enchantment that’s remained. “I’ve always wanted to work for Disney,” Parrish says.

She found a room to rent in Huntington Beach and was hired to work the front desk of the Grand Californian Hotel in 2012. Parrish quit for six months to complete cosmetology classes at Golden West College; the hotel’s graveyard shifts and only sleeping four hours per day affected her studies. But once Parrish obtained her state license, she wasted no time in returning to Disneyland.

Parrish does more hairstyling than makeup on a typical day. She preps Disney princesses, parade performers and other entertainers. “I thoroughly enjoy making the magic,” she says. “It’s creating experiences and making those memories that will last a lifetime.”

Photo by Javier Castellanos. Design by Richie Beckman

But it’s also hard for her to see the sacrifices she’s made pay off. When Parrish moved to the cosmetology department from attractions two years ago, her starting salary was just above $11 per hour. “I have never been able to fully live on my own,” the 29-year-old says. “I have to choose whether I’m going to eat or put gas in my car.” Priced out of room rents, she now sleeps in the living room of her grandfather’s one-bedroom apartment in Rancho Cucamonga, the same family man who took her to Disneyland as a child.

The commute isn’t ideal and neither are the economic choices she has to make. “I try to make sure I, at least, have one meal a day,” Parrish says. Her department has potlucks every so often, which helps to tame her hunger pains. “If I’m really, really hungry, I’ll go to a family member’s house. I know some people aren’t lucky enough to do that.”

To her little cousins, Parrish has the coolest job in the world, working with the likes of Elsa, Ariel and Cinderella, her own favorite Disney princess as a girl. But she becomes most emotional when talking about the hardships she endures for her dreams. “It can wear a person’s self-worth down,” Parrish admits. She desperately hopes to attain her dream while making a living at Disneyland one day.

“Will I be able to?” Parrish asks herself. “Only time will tell.”

The Coalition of Resort Labor Unions hosts a town hall meeting to discuss the survey at the Sheraton Park Hotel, 1855 S. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim. Wed., reception, 5 p.m.; program, 6 p.m.

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