Are Disney Cast Members Mousetrapped?by Jeff Kober, contributing writer
[Note: I promised an article on a Muggle-Born's Guide to Hogwart's Castle. I again apologize that the article will have to wait. I experienced more difficulties in making that story a reality. I promise that it will appear soon.]
The impetus for writing this article has been the release of MouseTrapped 2010, a video now available on YouTube, which focuses on the plight of Disney cast members. Produced by the Service Trades Council Union, its release is timed to the ongoing negotiations between STCU and Walt Disney World for a new contract for 25,000 Disney cast members. The current contract is set to expire this weekend, Saturday, December 11.
Next February will be 18 years since I arrived in Orlando, Florida. Over the years, I've known scores and scores of Disney cast members, past and present. I'm not just talking about those I knew and associated with as a cast member at Disney. I'm talking about scores of individuals who are my neighbors, whose children go to school with mine, who I attend church with. I've attended their weddings, celebrated the births of their children, visited them in the hospital, and even attended some of their funerals. This article is a reflection of my time and experience with those Disney cast members.
My own home is in a unique place surrounded by three very different communities, and is only a few minutes away from Walt Disney World. It offers an interesting cross-section of those who work at Disney.
In one direction is historic Kissimmee. Many who live there can tell you when Highway 192 was a single-lane dirt road and there was no Walt Disney World. Many of them took on jobs when Walt Disney World first opened. Many have had fairly successful careers, and many have since modestly retired. For the most part, these people were at the right place at the right time in Florida history. They remember the good old days when Disney shut down the Magic Kingdom for its annual cast member Christmas party, or about a cousin or uncle who years ago used to run tape at night through the corridors of the Magic Kingdom alongside Al Weiss. They can tell you stories, and they've seen it all.
And they will also be the first to tell you that Disney isn't what it used to be.
To the south of me is Poinciana, where many of your front-line cast members come from. I know chefs, bus drivers, housekeepers, ride operators, and reservationists. I know security officers, life guards, retail hosts, and maintenance personnel. They travel along Poinciana Boulevard to get to work each day. Some leave very early in the morning, and some come home even earlier in the morning. They live simple lives, work very hard, and travel a greater distance to get to their home because it's the only place where they can afford a home.
Some of these individuals live below the poverty level. Most live paycheck to paycheck. Too many are often one bad day from disaster.
In the other direction is Celebration—special to me in many ways. I watched its towers rise from the top of a water slide tower at a water park known as Water Mania, where I worked my first years as a director of operations. Celebration is known as the town that Disney built, though operation of that town has been turned over to others. The concept was to put garages in the back and porches in the front to create a sense of community, a place where children played on the front yard while the parents rocked on the porch. Many Disney cast members live there, including managers. I once visited the home of a senior Disney Imagineering executive. Truth be told, it was actually his second home; the other was in California. Either way, you don't see many people on the front porch. Maybe they live elsewhere. Maybe they are all working overtime.
These descriptions are not intended to be a sweeping stereotype; truth be told, I've known senior management in Poinciana, as well as unemployed Disney artists in Celebration.
Of course, with a total of 62,000 cast members employed at Walt Disney World, they are bound to live in many other neighborhoods. Just as there are executives living in the wealthier neighborhoods of Windermere and Bay Hill, I still remember the sea of school buses that lined the parking lot of Disney's Animal Kingdom during the height of construction in the 1990s. These buses carried construction workers who had neither the means nor the ability to obtain a legal driver's license. I couldn't tell you where they came from, nor where they went home to at night.
And then there are the 14,000 cast members who aren't from Florida at all, who work at WDW as participants of the international and college programs. Many are university-type intern working their first big job, creating the international flavor you experience when you're in Epcot, or in Asia and Africa at Disney's Animal Kingdom. But an ever-increasing number of international employees are brought here from places that are not represented in Epcot or Animal Kingdom, working simply to fill the places of American workers. Such a cast member may be from Mumbai, India, serving ice cream on Main Street, U.S.A. before the parade, or from the small Central American country of Belize, driving guests on the tram, or from Seoul, working the front desk at Disney's Wilderness Lodge. They represent the new Disney cast member—perhaps they are the ones any trade council or union should concern themselves with the most.
Looking at these Disney cast members, I ask they question: Are cast members "mousetrapped"? Sometimes I wonder.
I had lunch the other day with a salaried cast member who had been fired under circumstances that were, in my opinion, unfair. I know another 25-year-veteran colleague of mine who is being elbowed into retirement despite his desire in continuing working. Conversely, I know another front-line cast member who has had extensive experiences in and out of the hospital, and yet management in his location has been more than generous in its efforts to accommodate this person's situation. Still another now works at Universal Studios, where he complains about how much worse that role is from his days at Disney.
I know too much of the terrible mishandlings when it comes to Disney cast members. It's one thing to know that a cast member has been killed driving a monorail; it's another when your child knows that cast member as the son of their schoolteacher.
And then there are the wages and benefits. At the Disney Institute, we were always asked by the public about how well Disney cast members were paid. We used to say that Disney was competitive in wages and salaries, usually somewhere in the 55 percentile. That meant they were paid a little bit more than on average. But does Disney want something a little bit more than average from its workers?
I have no shortage of words for executives whose excessive salaries and perks may be approved by a board of directors, but are disapproved by any reasonable and ethical perspective. But does this pay disparity make cast members "mousetrapped?"
I asked that question of a close, older friend who works as a bus driver at Disney. His response was both immediate and emphatic: "Disney doesn't owe me anything. I have an agreement to work with them. I'd love more pay, but that's what I agreed to. I need this job. But if I need to move on, I will. I'm in the place that I'm in working a front-line position because of my own life's decisions, not because of theirs. I give them a fair day's work and they pay me a fair wage for it. And when I act from that perspective, I find that I quite enjoy working with the guests, my managers, and my fellow cast members."
At the heart of his response is that we all have choices. Some of our choices, or those others make, may leave us trapped—even "mousetrapped." Even in those circumstances, however, we still can choose how we respond.
"I choose" is probably one of the most powerful statements we can make for ourselves. It frees us to consider greater possibilities. Every cast member—indeed, every person in this life—gets to choose. We may not get to choose our circumstances, but we get to choose our response to those circumstances. Of course, earlier choices can limit your subsequent choices—but they were always yours to choose. J. Martin Kobe once said, "The greatest power that a person possesses is the power to choose."
So as a Disney cast member, choose. Don't let Disney make you a victim. Don't get "mousetrapped." Choose how you will respond to whatever circumstance you are in.
And Disney? You get to make choices as a company as well. But remember, failure to fully engage your workforce limits your choices in the future as well. Failure to be there for those who are there for you 24/7 will in time have its own consequence. In particular, because your choices affect the economic well-being of this community, your choices may impact what kind of "world" you want Walt Disney World to be in. Your best cast members can pack up and move away, but you can't. So when it comes to people, you can't do enough to think more carefully about your approach to managing your greatest asset. You would do well to think more fully on what Walt once said: "It takes people to make the dream a reality."