Has the American Dream morphed into a pyramid scheme?

One that lures immigrants and low wage workers into a tough economic order with the promise of a way up but instead delivers a long, hard trek of treading water over basic bills, often on the verge of homelessness?

All while their city lavishes huge tax subsidies on big businesses like Disneyland.

And delivers less and less investment into the city’s most urban core or its residents. 

That’s what Disney heiress Abby Disney and her co-director Kathleen Hughes want viewers to ponder as they watch their latest documentary, the American Dream and Other Fairy Tales.

The documentary starts right on the streets of Anaheim and asks hard questions about the impact of the city’s approach to big business subsidies and stagnant resort worker pay in recent decades.

The film follows several Disney workers through the challenges of their daily lives, trying to stay afloat on wages they say makes it hard to do anything more than work and pay basic bills.

At the same time, the documentary notes the soaring compensation packages of corporate CEOs like Disney’s former head, Bob Iger. 

I recently caught up with Disney and Hughes and helped moderate a panel about the film at a premier showing on Sept. 18 at the Cinemark Stadium 25 cinemas in Orange. At the panel, Disney noted the important timing of the film’s release to the upcoming Anaheim City Council elections, adding that the film is all about people taking action.

The American Dream & Other Fairy Tales premiere plus Q&A with Voice of OC publisher Norberto Santana Jr. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

Voice of OC Arts & Culture Editor Richard Chang reviewed the documentary, which is being streamed across a host of platforms and is also showing at other premiers across the country. Another Q&A with the filmmakers is scheduled for Sept. 30 at the Royal Cinema in LA.  

[Read: New Documentary Critical of Disney, Created by a Disney Heiress]

During the discussion following the premier in Anaheim earlier this month, Abby praised the power of union organizers like Austin Lynch, a spokesman for UNITE-HERE Local 11, in working with Disneyland to lift wages of some of the lowest paid workers at the park – something the resort giant actually moved to do in recent years, Lynch said.

Like her grand uncle, Walt, Abby Disney is fiercely focused on inspiring people.

She first climbed into my Jeep in 2019 when her producers were in Orange County, doing research – which led them to read a lot of Voice of OC stories about Anaheim. 

They reached out that Fall asking whether Disney could accompany me on my local beat reporting, something that left me warning them the Jeep hasn’t had a working A/C in years and isn’t a soft ride, much like the streets of Anaheim. 

After mounting a ton of cameras on the hood of my Jeep, I was off, driving with Disney.

Abby asked to go to the most challenged neighborhoods, where the 2012 riots had been sparked. 

We walked many neighborhoods where workers had to walk blocks to get home each night because of lack of parking. The same neighborhoods are often bombarded by Disney fireworks and struggle with resort traffic on a daily basis.

She asked tough questions, even of herself, her family. 

That’s what drew her to the Voice of OC offices and led to my own appearance in the film. 

The American Dream & Other Fairy Tales premiere plus Q&A with Voice of OC publisher Norberto Santana Jr. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC)

She was surprised to see how Disney regularly uses campaign contributions to influence local elections in Anaheim, especially when we showed her the detailed work of our county reporter, Nick Gerda, who has for years tracked how the entertainment juggernaut moves money around political action committees to get candidates elected, who then are very friendly to all resort interests.

Abby was also very vocal earlier this year when the FBI released an affidavit by one of its agents detailing how the agency had been wiretapping influential people all over Anaheim, referring to a small cadre of interests – including the chamber of commerce and resort district – that ran city hall for special interests.

Read the FBI affidavits here and here.

Abby publicly credits the reporting of Voice of OC for being a factor in the FBI action, stressing that solid, shoe leather reporting is what helps law enforcement and other officials keep civic leaders in check. 

Yet as her film shows, keeping city hall transparent, much less accountable, is no easy feat. 

Like many local residents, Abby keeps asking me what’s going on with the FBI corruption probe, which hasn’t seen any new public court filings since May. 

Indeed, many of the main players called out by the FBI affidavit are still in charge at city hall.

To date, the only change there has been Mayor Harry Sidhu, who resigned his office in the wake of the announcement of the FBI probe ostensibly to defend himself – even though no further indictments have yet to be announced.

Sidhu’s strong ally, former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges in July. An FBI affidavit states he was one of the “ringleaders” of a shadowy network of resort interests who influenced city hall policy making.

Yet one of the Anaheim City Council’s most vocal majority members – Trevor O’Neil – who has admitted publicly to being at a private retreat called out in the FBI affidavit –  is now running for Mayor.

Another key council majority member, Gloria Ma’ae – who was appointed to her city council seat by the resort-friendly majority – is also running for election as an incumbent.

That’s something that already drew notice from the Orange County Register’s editorial board, which this past week endorsed candidates against all incumbents and council majority allies in Anaheim in the upcoming elections. 

Yet beyond just changing out elected leaders, Disney hopes her documentary prompts Anaheim residents – indeed all of us across Orange County and the nation – to ask ourselves hard questions about the priorities in our own municipal families. 

What are your local elected officials’ priorities?

What is so important about Disney’s documentary is that it’s really asking the most important question of all: Do the policies coming out of our city halls represent the best interests of building healthy communities or padding special interest bank accounts?

There’s a huge gap these days in spurring public conversations like the one that Disney and Hughes produced and directed. 

Consider the fact that today in Orange County, there’s no major debates planned for any local offices that I’m aware of.

From Congress, to state offices, to your county supervisors, to your mayors or council members – few residents in Orange County will see any kind of head to head matchup of candidates.

No frank conversations. 

Just tons of direct mail.

In Anaheim, much of the incoming mailers will be funded by the very resort interests that Abby and Kathleen’s  documentary examines – the Disney company already injected $1.3 million into a local political action committee. 

[Read: Disney Revs Up Campaign Spending in Anaheim Amid Calls to Curb Their Influence After FBI Allegations]

Note that with every passing election cycle in Orange County, it seems fewer and fewer civic institutions – whether it’s activist groups, media, the chambers of commerce, the business council, churches or universities – can get local politicians to sit down and take questions in public.

Especially before Election Day. 

The civic square in Orange County has been ceded to direct mail.

That’s why this year at Voice of OC, we’re focusing on voter guides featuring resident-focused questionnaires for candidates and elected officials. .

Real questions for leaders who won’t stand in front of residents anymore. 

In real time, easily accessible via online before Election Day.

We’ve been taking resident questions – we got 50 the first day we asked – to put to the people who want to represent us.

Our aim is to publish their answers online – like we did before the June primary – allowing residents to have real conversations about who’s got their back.

Like documentary film, journalism is all about amplifying voices, getting people to talk – which always fuels change.

It’s ultimately up to us to ensure the American Dream doesn’t become a pyramid scheme. 

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