‘Going against the Mouse’: Disneyland performers advance unionization efforts

Hundreds of Disneyland employees who perform in parades, high-five visitors and pose for photos while dressed as famous characters have backed the creation of a union.  (EFF GRITCHEN/ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER/SCNG/MEDIANEWS GROUP/GETTY)
Hundreds of Disneyland employees who perform in parades, high-five visitors and pose for photos while dressed as famous characters have backed the creation of a union. (EFF GRITCHEN/ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER/SCNG/MEDIANEWS GROUP/GETTY)

Summary

Performers are sharing concerns over benefits, health and safety as they work to form a union.

Mickey, Goofy and their friends at Disneyland are planning to join a union.

Hundreds of Disneyland employees who perform in parades, high-five visitors and pose for photos while dressed as famous Disney characters—from Darth Vader to Princess Jasmine—have backed the creation of a new unit of the Actors’ Equity Association, a union that primarily represents theater actors and stage managers.

The unionizing workers say hourly wages are too low, benefits are limited and there are scant opportunities for advancement. Others complain of unsanitary working conditions, unchecked harassment by park guests, costume-related injuries and a lack of scheduling flexibility.

A Disney spokeswoman said pay is competitive and working conditions are good. Hourly workers receive annual wage increases, and base pay for parade and character performers rose from $20 to $24.15 per hour starting in January, she said.

The unionizing group, which calls itself “Magic United," on Tuesday notified Disney that it had the support of the majority of Disneyland’s 1,700 cast members—Disney’s term for its parks employees. On Wednesday, the group filed a petition to hold an election. If Disney doesn’t voluntarily recognize the new union, the workers could vote to establish it as soon as May.

“We support our cast members’ right to a confidential vote that recognizes their individual choices," said a Disney parks spokeswoman. The current unionization efforts don’t include workers at Walt Disney World, Disney’s Florida park.

The union organizing comes as parks become an increasingly important profit engine for Disney and amid a broader nationwide increase in worker unionization efforts that span parks performers, Hollywood visual effects artists, coffee baristas and auto-factory workers.

The Disney unit that includes theme parks accounted for 69% of operating income from the company’s primary business segments in its 2023 fiscal year, up from 39% in 2018. The company has announced plans to invest $60 billion in that division over the next decade.

Disney parks performers are at the center of many visitors’ most cherished memories and represent the sense of “magic" that the company’s founder often spoke of wanting to create. Such was their devotion to Disney that these workers rarely aired grievances publicly. Some say discontent has grown since parks reopened after the pandemic, even among performers who describe themselves as lifelong fans, exhilarated by the feeling of connecting with visitors.

‘It’s hard to go against the Mouse’

Disney publishes “Look Books" that dictate parks performers’ appearance, down to the length of their facial hair and nail polish colors. Mixing the worlds of reality and fantasy is forbidden: Cast members can be fired for revealing publicly which princesses or cartoon characters they portray during work hours.

Some workers, including most of those who march in parades, aren’t permitted to work full time. Disney says parade work is part-time by nature.

Courtney Griffith, 26 years old, earns $24.15 an hour to perform in parades like “Magic Happens" and “Fantasmic!" in addition to working shifts dressed as Disney characters. Griffith, who is finishing her college degree, earned about $18,000 last year and lives at home with her parents.

When she got involved with the unionization efforts, her mother became concerned because “it’s hard to go against the Mouse," Griffith said.

Her mother Barb Griffith, a dancer, started dating her father Tom Griffith, a trombone player, when both were working in Disneyland parades in the early 1980s. Courtney Griffith passes by the bench where her parents first met each time she sets out down Main Street to perform.

She wants the union to push for more hours and full-time status for parade workers, higher pay, more autonomy over shift-scheduling and better cleanliness and safety standards.

‘My body has had enough’

Some performers have raised health and safety concerns as part of the unionization push.

Those who portray Disney princesses refer to a moldy basement room beneath Disneyland’s castle where they take breaks between shifts as “the dungeon." Disney acknowledged that cast members give “colorful names" to some facilities, and said the princesses’ basement break room “receives regular custodial service."

Alexis Velasco, 24, said she was attacked by a guest in 2018 while dressed as a classic Disney character after offering the visitor a handshake and playfully pulling her hand away.

The guest became upset and wrenched her head backward from behind, pulling her to the ground. Velasco said a doctor later told her that she had whiplash so severe it looked like she had been in a serious car accident.

Disney helped Velasco—who still has a limited range of motion in her neck—pay for her medical bills using a workers’ compensation settlement.

Other organizers described guest assaults on workers and said it often takes too long for security to respond to incidents. Disney said it doesn’t tolerate inappropriate guest behavior.

Velasco still performs at Disneyland, but doesn’t expect to stay much longer. “There are good moments in my job—it pulls on my heartstrings, and I tend to forget all the injuries and damages that I’ve gone through," she said. “But my body has had enough."

Adam Hefner, 28, was injured on the job at Disneyland in 2016, when he suffered a repetitive stress injury from a costume that resulted in a torn labrum in his shoulder.

He says that Disney helped him find doctors and pay his medical bills when he was injured. The incident prompted him in 2018 to switch to being a “safety lead"—a backstage position where he now earns $26.15 an hour to help other cast members who are experiencing pain or discomfort.

Hefner said through his unionization work he has heard from other cast members who have suffered injuries from ill-fitting and burdensome costumes. Disney said employee safety is a top priority.

Hefner has spent time working with children as a character at a now-closed interactive show called Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple. He called his time at the Star Wars-themed experience “by far the best thing I’ve ever done"—not just at work, but in his whole life.

He earns around $40,000 a year, without benefits, working part time. That salary—which qualifies him as low-income in Orange County, Calif.— has required him to live with three roommates in an apartment in Anaheim and doesn’t leave much extra cash to pursue his hobbies, like traveling.

‘Disney made me who I am’

Mai Vo keeps a shoebox in her closet filled with drawings and letters that fans and co-workers have given her.

“Disney made me who I am, for better or for worse," she said.

A former high school marching band percussionist and drum major and the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who settled in Orange County, Vo first auditioned to be what’s known as a “look-alike" performer at Disney when she was 16.

Her first job as a performer at California Adventure paid $13.50 an hour. Now 37, she works full time at Disneyland, making $24.75 per hour as a host and $29.50 an hour as a character.

She plans to continue working at Disneyland at least through the completion of the union drive with the aim of moving out of the cramped mobile home in Placentia, Calif., which she shares with her mother and brother.

One of her goals in the union push is a better paid-time-off policy. She said after the pandemic Disneyland changed its time-off policy, making it harder for cast members to accumulate paid time off to use when they are sick, which gives workers little incentive to stay home if they fall ill.

The Disney parks spokeswoman said that the company’s sick-leave policy is “reasonable and fair."

Angela Nichols, who is in her 30s, works as a host at Disneyland, chaperoning costumed characters around the park. She earned a master’s degree in writing while working shifts at Disney and other part-time jobs, including as a production assistant on film sets.

Nichols dreams of becoming a TV screenwriter, but wants to see the union drive through to the end and pressure the company to treat cast members with more respect. “I think I know I should leave, but I want to leave this job better than I found it," she said.

Write to Robbie Whelan at robbie.whelan@wsj.com

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