Contrary to popular belief, Disneyland is not the happiest place on Earth, particularly for many of its workers.
In fact, a significant number of Disneyland Resort workers toil at poverty-level wages, can’t afford to buy a house or pay rent for an apartment, need to survive on food assistance and can’t afford health insurance. Many attest to having slept in their vehicles to get by, even while working fulltime.
‘The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales’
Where: Century Stadium 25 and XD, 1701 W. Katella Ave., Orange
When: Premieres 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18 (invitation only); regular run begins Sept. 23
Information: (714) 532-9558 or cinemark.com/theatres/ca-orange/century-stadium-25-and-xd
All of this is captured in a new documentary, “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales,” which is co-directed, co-written and co-produced by Abigail Disney, grand-niece of the late, great Walt Disney, and granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, co-founder of Disney Studios and the company’s first CEO. She’s also the daughter of Roy E. Disney, a senior executive for the Walt Disney Company and latter-day critic who died in 2009 at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach.
“The American Dream” – which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival – makes its Orange County premiere Sunday at Century Stadium 25 and XD in Orange, then appears in New York City, video on demand and other markets on Friday, Sept. 23. It will screen in Los Angeles starting Sept. 30.
The documentary focuses on Disney’s tireless, hard-scrabble workers, who have – for generations – been famously tight-lipped when it comes to their uber-powerful employer. The Disneyland Resort in Anaheim employees about 30,000 people, according to the New York Times, thousands of them Orange County residents.
In the film, Abigail Disney and her co-director Kathleen Hughes follow four workers around for about two years, including through the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the amusement parks were shut down.
The filmmakers also interview Anaheim councilmember Jose F. Moreno about Disney’s shady dealings, and this site’s very own Norberto Santana, publisher and editor-in-chief of Voice of OC.
Though not in painstaking detail, the documentary reviews corruption and backroom deals that Disney has orchestrated with the city of Anaheim, which have been well-documented here at Voice of OC.
Abby Disney is the primary narrator and interviewer of subjects. She delves into her own life as an heiress to the Disney empire and the privileges and responsibilities that position entails.
“Of course, you don’t get to carry a name like this without having questions,” she said during a recent interview. “I feel so clearly like I have benefitted all my life from the work that the workers do. And I didn’t really let myself interrogate that as deeply as I probably should have.
Reporting by Voice of OC Used as Film Research
During the interview, Abigail Disney shared some kind words for Voice of OC’s publisher, with whom she went on a Jeep ride through some of the seedier parts of Anaheim for the documentary.
“Norberto is a bulldog. He is a ferocious bulldog,” she said. “I love his reporting, I love his relentlessness. He does not curry favor. He’s not (necessarily) targeting Disney. He’s willing to speak up and tell the truth.
“Disney has intimidated that county pretty relentlessly. They like to put out carrots; they like to lavish people with favors. A company should not be manipulating the political system to curry favor and attain economic advantages, which are basically taken from the city of Anaheim. If I were a citizen of Anaheim, I would be furious. Norberto was the only person who was reporting that stuff out without fear or favor.”
Co-director Kathleen Hughes concurs. “He’s following the money. He’s doing what every great reporter does. He understands how important what goes on is to the local community. It’s to be applauded and admired. I only wish we could have had a lot more of Norberto in the film.”
Santana and Voice of OC get about a minute’s time in the documentary. But the filmmakers did use VOC as a constant source for background information.
“It’s really the little engine that can,” Hughes observed. “It’s remarkable how much hard information is coming out of that place. And there should be a lot more Norbertos out there in the world.”
“A lot of Americans sit on top of things they don’t interrogate; they might feel differently if they did.”
Abby Disney is a known quantity. For years, the Ivy League-educated scholar and activist has held her family corporation under an intense microscope, and has been an advocate of taxing the rich. In the doc, she critiques President Reagan’s trickle-down economics, Milton Friedman’s “greed is good” economic theories and the gap that’s widening between rich and poor, as the middle class is getting squeezed to smithereens.
Connecting the Dots
During the course of her 1 hour, 27-minute film, she does play a game of connect the dots that implicates the CEOs of the nation and the world, and casts the downtrodden workers as the cross-bearers of shameful inequities and exploitation. A short segment on race in America deserves its own documentary – or encyclopedia.
But more interestingly, she captures Disney workers – and Orange County denizens – in the grips of a debilitating pandemic that left folks unemployed for more than a year and shut nearly everything down. It’s something that few documentaries have captured on film up to this point.
“As things played out, and as the pandemic played out, people’s relationship to the company changed,” Disney said. “They shared what they personally felt about being employed there, which is a part of this film that really broke my heart. Because three out of four people who we feature in this film no longer work there. Except for Trina, they don’t really feel good about having been employed there.
“That kills me, because of all the things that characterized somebody who worked at Disney all those years ago, is that they were so proud to be there. They felt so good about what they were doing. By the end of this film – eh, not so much.
“What I’m concerned about is – the company can’t withstand that. That is a precious asset that the company has pissed away, and they’ll be dealing with the consequences for years.”
Voice of OC reached out to Disneyland Resorts and its media relations office, but did not receive a comment about the documentary or its contents. The company did tell the New York Times that it pays its employees fairly and provides benefits and access to tuition-free higher education.
And in case you haven’t noticed, Disneyland is back open for business, has increased ticket and season pass prices, and has been on a massive hiring spree. The resort is even advertising on TV, radio and the internet for new workers.
“They’re eager to hire people, because let’s not kid ourselves, they’re having terrible retention problems,” Abby Disney said. “Retention problems are an insane problem for them to have. They’ve never dealt with retention problems, ever. It’s a rubicon they can cross, and it’s not one they can easily un-cross.”
The filmmakers – who first collaborated on the 2015 guns and abortion doc “The Armor of Light” – are hoping for a nationwide release of their latest documentary, which they are self-distributing. And ample views on video-on-demand services won’t hurt either. Basically, they just want to get the word out.
“Any way I can make a dent in the overwhelmingly daunting job of shifting the course in which we do business, I’ll do it,” Disney said.
Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at email@example.com.