In its movies and theme parks, the Walt Disney Company is all about creating a magical experience for fans.
But now, a new documentary from Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Walt Disney Company co-founder Roy Disney, examines how the magical dream doesn’t extend to many Disney employees—some of whom are struggling to meet their basic needs, like food and housing. The film follows four Disneyland custodial staff in Anaheim, California, who live on just $15 an hour.
“How many of you know someone who works at Disney who has slept in their car?” Disney asks a group of employees in the film. Hands shoot up, as they do for questions about going without medical care and living on food stamps.
The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, co-directed by Disney and Kathleen Hughes, isn’t just about the Walt Disney Company, though it doesn’t shy away from criticizing it. Instead, the film explores the state of income inequality and workers’ rights in the United States in general, using Disney to tell a bigger story about the struggle between American workers and executives.
“They have gone the way of most every other company in this country. They started with a bigger idea of themselves than that,” Disney tells Jake Coyle of the Associated Press (AP). “The Walt Disney [Company] was better. It was kinder, it was gentler. It was a human company.”
But more recently, says Disney, “[w]e have lost the plot.”
The documentary is the latest, and most extensive, in a series of criticisms Disney has leveled at the company bearing her family name. In a series of tweets in 2019, she highlighted pay inequities by comparing then-CEO Bob Iger’s compensation (upwards of $65 million) to the salaries of lower-wage workers. Disney also spoke up earlier this year when the company was slow to voice support for LGBTQ employees in the face of what’s known as the “don’t say gay” bill in Florida.
Let me very clear. I like Bob Iger. I do NOT speak for my family but only for myself. Other than owning shares (not that many) I have no more say in what happens there than anyone else. But by any objective measure a pay ratio over a thousand is insane. https://t.co/O34OjXd6rr— Abigail Disney (@abigaildisney) April 21, 2019
Disney’s siblings, Susan Disney Lord and Tim Disney, are also executive producers on the film. The Disney family hasn’t been involved in running the company since 2003.
In addition to exposing the modern-day struggle of the American worker, the documentary contextualizes how labor in American has changed and lays out the biggest issues unions are fighting.
Over the last 50 years, “[t]here was a shift in the way workers were understood,” Disney tells NPR’s Michel Martin. “And they stopped being seen as partners, and they started being seen as simply an expense.” One by one, she says, workers lost the benefits that more jobs once provided, like pensions and health care.
Variety’s chief film critic Peter Debruge praises the documentary as an “engaging economics lesson.” He writes, “[I]t makes a powerful statement when a member of one of America’s most respected families steps forward and demands change. … It’s even harder to ignore when this Disney descendant provides the public an entertaining, easy-to-digest film to explain the inequality hiding in plain sight.”
In a statement to the AP, a Disney spokesperson lists some of the benefits the company offers, like subsidized childcare, medical coverage and access to tuition-free higher education programs.
“We are committed to building on these impactful programs by identifying new ways to support our cast members and communities around the world,” says the spokesperson.
While Disney says no one from the company has reached out to her after the documentary’s release, she’s open to starting a conversation.
“I am rooting for them. I love this company,” she tells the AP. “This is a love letter to the company. But when you really, really love something and see it going off the rails, you can’t be silent.”