Documentary filmmaker Abigail Disney uses one of her family’s theme parks as a microcosm to ask bigger questions about the American economy

Documentary filmmaker Abigail Disney uses one of her family’s theme parks as a microcosm to ask bigger questions about the American economy
photo courtesy of the filmmakers

Last weekend, thousands of Disney's biggest fans paid hundreds of dollars each to gather in Anaheim's Convention Center at the D23 Expo and hear executives promote the company's upcoming products. Simultaneously, a distressing number of workers at the theme park across the street are struggling to make ends meet, while CEO Bob Chapek receives nearly 650 times his median employee's salary. That disparity — and the danger it represents for America's economic system — is at the heart of The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, the devastating new documentary from Emmy award-winning producer-director Abigail Disney.

Abigail Disney, whose grandfather Roy O. Disney founded the iconic studio with his brother Walt nearly 100 years ago, produced acclaimed films about Liberia and gun violence before making headlines with her editorials and Congressional testimony decrying income inequality and other injustices at the business that bears her name. (She inherited a substantial amount of Disney stock, but holds no official role in the company.) Although her new documentary focuses on the Disneyland Resort, it's receiving a red-carpet premiere this weekend here at the Enzian, where I'll be hosting her post-show talkback following Saturday night's 6:15 p.m. screening. Here's a hint of what you'll hear, from our recent conversation ahead of her Orlando appearance:

How would your father Roy E. Disney — who brought CEO Michael Eisner into Disney, then pushed him out for Bob Iger — respond to your advocacy?

I can't honestly tell you he'd be all that thrilled with me, because we had big political differences, and I'm not sure that he would see the labor situation the way I see it. But I do know that at bottom, he knew things had been going south slowly but surely for workers. He might not be as enthused as I am about unions, but I think he objected to the treatment, and I think he'd want to play a part in changing that. He knew that the people who work there were the magic sauce that made all the difference for people who come, and to treat them badly first of all, is kind of stupid from a business perspective, [and] it's just wrong from a moral perspective.

What could Disney do immediately to improve employees' lives?

What if the company raised their wages, took the hit, and then proved that it could remain profitable in spite of the happy workers? The first and most important thing is, wages need to be raised — and not just marginally, but in a way that really recognizes that people deserve lives that are secure and healthy, and have access to things like education for their children. That means a material raise, not just 75 cents, but several dollars, and they need to be treated differently. It's not just about pay; it's about how people are treated. There are a million other ways to suppress wages than just in the dollar figures.

I think that Wall Street would hit them hard for it, just because that's how Wall Street thinks, and maybe the share price would take a hit. That would hurt me personally enormously. But honestly, I think that if companies don't choose to lead on this issue, Wall Street is never going to recognize that they have been driving corporate behavior that has been incredibly destructive. And not just destructive to people's individual lives, but frankly our democracy is in tatters in part because people are as angry as they are.

The film focuses on Disneyland; what's your relationship with Walt Disney World?

Anaheim was the park I grew up in, [but] Orlando is the park I have so much affection for because I was 11, almost 12, when it opened, and I can remember so vividly that opening day. I can remember so vividly meeting Pete Rose [and] Johnny Bench, and seeing my grandfather stand in front of those people. I mean honestly, I can cry thinking about it, because he died a month and a half later of a massive cerebral aneurysm, and my grandmother always said "that park killed your grandfather," because I think it probably did. It was a gesture of genuine love and affection on my grandfather's part. When his brother, that he saw himself as the protector of, died before he did, he was going to [build WDW] if it killed him. On time, under budget, and biggest construction project in the history of civilian construction in the United States. So I just don't know how to describe the kind of love I feel for Orlando.

What are your early memories of your grandfather and the Disney theme parks?

I do have incredible memories. I remember being on the first boat with my grandfather on the Small World ride. I maybe was 5 or 4 years old, but that’s a really special memory. It’s such an early memory that I couldn’t really tell you honestly, whether it was just something I made up or a memory, it’s that foggy.  But mainly, I remember going in with with Grandpop through the back door, and just being kind of enchanted by him and the way he was, and having him all to myself — which, as the third of four children, was very special. In Disneyland’s early days, it was the ticket system with the A-E [ride coupons]. Sometimes he would just grab a pile of ticket books, and just give us Es and send us on our way. Which was a little bit cheating, but probably fine.

When did you realize that your family name made you privileged?

That didn’t really hit me until I left for college. In college people acted weird around me. ...  I had gone to a high school where everybody was from the [entertainment] business in one way or another [and] my name in the ’70s wasn’t a helpful name. If you can remember the ’70s, we were not such a thriving company, so if you go to a place that’s focused on the business, and then your part of the business is kind of drecky, then you don’t get treated very well. All of a sudden, people were mentioning that they had a friend who’d already met me, and that means you’re talking about me. So that was my first encounter with the idea that this meant something to people that I wasn’t yet understanding. … It’s more like a series of epiphanies, because it’s a complicated thing to learn.

What was you last visit to a Disney park like?

It is so fun to go as a guest when you don’t have any worries. Frankly, as a little girl, I knew everybody was a little bit watching us, and so there was some self-consciousness. So just to go as a regular civilian, my favorite thing about being there is watching families together. Just because it feels to me like this is an unmitigated good thing that my grandfather and great-uncle did. It’s just an unmitigated good for the world, and that makes me so so happy.

What's your take on Gov. Ron DeSantis' effort to dismantle Disney's quasi-independent Reedy Creek district?

That's a special perk that was a creation of my grandfather, God love him, and he was an advocate for his company. We would have argued probably pretty strenuously about how right it was for him to have those special privileges, [but] once they're in place, when you jerk them out from under a company, what you're starting to do is capriciously enforce laws and principles on the basis of a company's perceived political positions, and that is dangerous indeed. I don't see the business community really loving the idea of capricious enforcement of laws and regulations and special conditions, so while I don't think Reedy Creek is the best thing in the world, to give a corporation that kind of latitude and that kind of self-governance, it's been in place for 50 years, and if you're going to take it out from under them, let's have a conversation about that. Let's legislate it [and] have a long discourse on how best to do that without jerking the company around. Jerking the company around isn't good for your state, and let's face it, what does it serve as but a warning to other companies? That was the sole purpose of the controversy.

DeSantis picked the biggest company in his state, the one perceived to be the most powerful, and he used it to send a message to everyone with less power, about what would happen to them were they to cross him. I hate to use the F-word, but this is the Argentine's consolidated power under junta.

Why did Disney stumble in addressing recent controversies in Florida?

I think is that the issue here is economics, and when we’re talking about the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and so forth, it’s a way of not talking about economics.

The fact is that Ron DeSantis and Disney are probably very much on the same page about how that works, which is why the controversy began. They were making financial donations to political figures who were right wing of Attila the Hun, so if they were "politically woke," I don’t know how that fits that description. And the reason that they were supporting figures as diverse as they were inside the state legislature was because they were all “pro-businesses.” That’s Disney’s only agenda. Disney’s not a woke company; Disney was doing what it needed to do, frankly, without a lot of plan and a lot of thoughts to get through a controversy without alienating any customers or any employees. They failed to do that. But let’s not kid ourselves about whether or not a corporation — which is not a person — has political views. Their view is money, and it’s the only view they have, and what they want in place in that legislature and in that governorship are people who will support the interests of the corporation above everything.

What’s the role of labor unions in this situation?

The unions, let’s face it, in 50 years have been eviscerated by Republican and right-wing activism. And it is very much of partisan issue, I hate to say, although Democrats have been milquetoasty about their support, so they haven’t really been that helpful. And Florida is a right-to-work state, so the right-to-work laws have been incredibly hard on unions. I don’t want to be critical of unions because I happen to know they’re trying as hard as they possibly can to represent their people as well as they can. But I have seen in other institutions that death by 1,000 cuts is the best way to create an institution that is ineffective and stultified, not growing. So what I believe in to the tips of my toes is collective bargaining; collective bargaining should not only be legal, but it should be facilitated by government. What we have now is the opposite.

We have a long history in this country of unions. We are one of the leading countries in the world, who created a union movement that was looked upon around the world as one of the best. And when unions were strong, the economy was strong, because the middle class was strong. So whether it’s through unions, or whether it’s through para-union type organizations, whatever it is that gets workers the capacity to be able to collectively bargain for their best interests in a democratic way, that’s what I favor.

How does Disney fans’ focus on executives like Chapek and parks chairperson Josh D’Amaro distract from the role of the board of directors and stockholders?

I think that it puts all the responsibility in one place when it’s really a widely shared responsibility. I think as Americans, generally speaking, we have a tendency to want to focus on a single personality, whether it’s good news or bad news, and that’s kind of foolishness because it’s a system; it’s a structure. But CEOs bear a lot of responsibility, and as they say, a fish rots from the head. So if there is a problem, certainly the CEO is of anyone best equipped to address the problem. And CEOs in contemporary America have a tendency to surround themselves with people who only reinforce their vision, rather than what Abraham Lincoln had, the "cabinet of rivals." Given that most boards of directors are comprised of people who either have been or are, or maybe someday will be CEOs, it’s a class of people that protects its own interests and protects the people that it identifies with.

I think most boards would be very, very improved by employees being on boards. It seems to me kind of stupid not to do that anyway, just because employees have access to information that very often when you’re at the top you’re the last one to get.

Shareholders have, sadly, limited power; they should have more power than they do, frankly, because even when you win a vote, it’s only a suggestion. ... So there are strong reasons to be looking at shareholders and asking them to step in and take a greater responsibility. But generally speaking, they only take responsibility on their own behalf, and that has not been good for employees either. Shareholders have too much primacy, mainly because executives and boards are compensated in shares, and we need to be looking more broadly at the other stakeholders to inform how companies run.

What do you think of recent changes to Disney’s annual passholder programs?

Disney has done to annual passholders in these last few months the only logical thing, especially if you look at Anaheim. What we have in Anaheim is the square footage problem, and so every single person has to pay off to their maximum capacity in per-caps and the rest. An annual passholder sometimes works out to the benefit of the company, but more often than not it doesn’t.

So there has been a lot of unhappiness among the passholders about the changing price structures and all the rest of it, but if as a company you see your customers like each one is a little lemon, and you have to get all the juice out of them you can possibly get out or you have failed at your job, then this is the only logical way this is going to happen. The passholders need to understand that there’s no love relationship there. And if they feel loyalty to the company, that’s nice, but I’m just not sure the company feels loyalty to them because it’s a corporation, and it can’t feel loyalty. It’s not a person.

What should frequent Disney theme park visitors be doing to help?

If they really care about the people they interact with the most often, then they will ask them how it’s going. They may not get an honest answer inside the park, but outside the park, I think they might. They might ask them what they think would be helpful to them. And I don’t think sitting on your hands or sitting on your money is necessarily a bad idea, if you think it will result in a place that abides by the value set that it claims to abide by.

What's your ultimate goal with this film?

All I'm talking about [is] asking Disney to live up to a set of principles that are at the heart of everything it says about itself. That's hard to do; I don't think that this is an easy ask. I think it's a radical thing for me to be saying that you need to reconceive your relationship to your customers and your employees.

We've built an entire house like architects who didn't know people would live in the house. It doesn't serve its purpose. The economy, writ large, doesn't serve its purpose. This is not, as I keep saying in the film, a Disney problem; Disney is a great place to go and look at it and talk about it. But more broadly, we need to ask more of our economy, and all of the moving parts that construct an economy, to think differently about where human life figures into the structures that make our world what it is today.

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