Imagine the party is about to begin. The lights dim, the music swells, the excitement builds. But first youand a few hundred of your closest friendsare rounded up, moved down the street and herded into a giant dirt corral, where you are made to sit for nearly three hours in complete darkness so as not to detract from the enjoyment of the partygoers.
No, this isn't a scene from Cinderella. It's a scene from Disneyland, and the detainees are the cast members cursed enough to have to work last Saturday's Pirates of the Caribbean movie premiere.
Certainly, most of the 1,500-some special guests seemed to enjoy the June 28 festivities. Celebrities arrived down a red-carpeted Main Street and enjoyed riding five different West Side attractions and noshing at five different restaurants before and after the world's first showing of the big-budgeted film.
The cast members who worked the event tell a different story. You see, from the earliest phases of planning, the Disney Studios insisted that anyone who was invited to the premiere had to vacate the area during the screening. Operations pushed back a bit early on, but about three months ago it was made extremely clear to the TDA (Team Disney Anaheim) executive team by the Burbank executive team that they were to 'fully assist and comply' with any request or demand by the Studios team organizing the premiere, a park manager confessed.
So, after the pre-party ended and guests made their way to the bleachers fronting the Rivers of America, all hourly cast members working the attractions, stores and food locations in the party area were marched back to and checked into the Festival Arena to wait out the film. Security performed sweeps of the entire New Orleans Square area to make sure every cast member had cleared out.
To maximize their humiliation, cast members walked down a darkened Big Thunder Trail to arrive at a pitch black arena. To help create the darkest environment possible for the screening, the Studios had insisted that all light fixtures be turned off on the western half of the park. The only hint of light came from the occasional sweeper's flashlight. Finally, someone drove up a car to provide faint illumination from its headlights.
Initially, management planned to offer these cast members a catered dinner. The Studios refused to pay for it, so it had to come out of the Theme Park Operations budget. And, to the surprise of no one, Operations' budget was woefully under-funded from the start.
The catered dinner, related one employee, consisted of some cheap, wilted sandwiches and bags of chips, but they ran out of food completely before only about half of the assembled cast members could grab a plate. The rest of the cast members literally sat around in the dark on the cement in the Festival Arena sharing what little dinner they had.
Several cast members were absolutely livid, said one cast member. There was little supervision, and the cast members were doing things to keep themselves busy, like riding dollies and carts to pass the time. I couldn't believe it when I saw it. Some cast members were apparently hassling the caterers so much that security had to be called in.
After about an hour, many of the cast members began to leave, to head home early or to try to catch a sneak peek at the movie. After more than two-and-a-half hours, the rest of the crew was escorted out of the darkness and back to their work locations to staff the after-party that ran from 11:00 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.
Groused one cast member: I was completely outraged. It was pretty clear to me and my co-workers just how much the Company cares about us. They could have at least taken us down to the Fantasyland Theater, maybe even shown the movie for us there. The fact is that the studio people could care less about us and our guests. I have never been more mad at the powers that be than I was that night. They treated us like cattle.
Yet, it wasn't just the hourly cast members who were made to feel like indentured servants. Also treated like criminals were the salaried management for the attractions, restaurants and merchandise locations that were to be opened in New Orleans Square, Frontierland and Critter Country. The offices for many salaried managers in that section of the park are located on the second floor of the buildings in Frontierland and New Orleans Square. So, many of those offices and conference rooms were commandeered for the weekend by battalions of employees from the Studios, Buena Vista Pictures and the Team Disney complex in Burbank.
Naturally, park management agreed to help their partners from Burbank, unaware of the snotty Hollywood attitude they'd receive in return. The Burbank folks were all given credentials that allowed them access to the premiere area and the screening. The salaried park managers, however, were not given a credential card; instead they were all tagged with blue plastic wristbands. The wristbands allowed them to stay in their offices during the movie and enter their restaurant or attraction during the party portion of the premiere, but they were forbidden from entering the premiere area itself or viewing the movie on the screen.
The windows to all offices and backstage common areas that faced the premiere area were taped shut, covered in blackout curtains, and then those offices were staffed with security cast members to prevent any salaried park manager from getting a glimpse at the premiere.
Now, a few Disneyland cast members were permitted to view the movie and enjoy the party, namely Cynthia Harriss, her senior executive team and their families. TDA execs, such as senior v.p. T. Irby, actually strode triumphantly down the red carpet elbow-to-elbow with Hollywood celebs and movie industry big-wigs. Word of the executive arrival quickly spread amongst the salaried Disneyland managers, and the news was not well received.
Regular visitors to the park that day didn't get too short a shrift, despite the park's early closing and the unsightly bleachers in New Orleans Square. Cast members freely handed out re-admissions and meal vouchers, and readily comped Disneyland exiles into Disney's California Adventure (DCA) for the evening.
Said one manager: While I did meet several pretty upset people, what really saved us from a Light Magic type event was the fact that both parks were dead. Disneyland had a total attendance of just 33,000 for the day, and DCA topped out at only 14,000! While that number is average for a DCA Saturday lately, the 33,000 for Disneyland is extremely low for the Saturday before the Fourth of July! If we had actually gotten an average 50,000 day at Disneyland, it would have been much uglier. The massive communication beforehand, and massive amounts of comp tickets and free stuff passed out to those who were there, really saved us from hordes stampeding into City Hall.
Overall the event was a success, because from a media and premiere perspective on Saturday it did go smoothly and was very well received, he continued. But the poor treatment of Disneyland cast members, both hourly and salaried, by the Burbank folks over the weekend really p-ssed people off. It was quite obvious that our Burbank partners don't think too highly of us, and don't feel the park or its employees or guests count for much. The park's morale really took a pretty good ding this weekend, right when it didn't need it.
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.