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Kevin Yee

Mouse in the House!

An unwelcome spotlight was recently focused on a premiere family dining establishment at the Disneyland Hotel after the Orange County Weekly published an article reporting that four cast members from Goofy's Kitchen filed workman's compensation claims against the Walt Disney Company over the restaurant's severe infestation of rats and mold. There may be more to this story, however, than that article reported.

The Walt Disney Company is on the receiving end of many lawsuits, claims, and complaints. Some are filed by former workers disgusted with the way the company treated them. Others are the result of someones perception that Disney is a large corporation with very deep pockets. Still others probably only a small minority are the result of actual negligence on the part of Disney. In fact, the sheer volume of such claims and lawsuits may lead one to assume that most simply cannot hold water.

The O.C. Weekly article broke the story of former employee Cynthia Hanel and her workers compensation claim. In graphic and disturbing detail, the article described some horrifying rodent conditions at Goofys Kitchen. And while the customer areas of the restaurant appear unaffected, questions remain about the worker zones. Was a decomposed rat really removed from a pipe during operating hours, as reported? Is there such a profound mold problem that workers' respiratory problems were affected, and even led to the growth of Hanel's sinus tumor?

Goofys Kitchen buffet
Goofys Kitchen buffet

One thing is certain: its nothing new for Disney to have a mouse in the house, and I dont mean Mickey. During my tenure in New Orleans Square in the 1980s and 1990s, I came across numerous rodents, usually after closing. With fewer lights and less commotion, the rats just came out of the woodwork. In fact, it was a rare day when I didnt see one at such hours.

This is not surprising for New Orleans Square. Its infrastructure has not been renovated since the area was built in 1966, and the unique nature of the Pirates of the Caribbean, its signature attraction, made this area a haven for rats. The flume rides water generates a dank atmosphere suitable to rodents, and its twisted and sprawling wooden layout created a large number of crawlspaces where the rats could breed and live. Glue traps, mentioned by Silvia Nava in the the O.C. Weekly article, are nothing new and neither are rats that survive by gnawing off their own legs to escape.

As mentioned in the article, foot-long rats do indeed exist at the Happiest Place on Earth: Ive seen one myself scamper across the skylight of the French Market ceiling in full view of the guests below sliding their trays piled full of spaghetti and cheesecake. The only difference is that the rat I saw was no less than 20 inches long; it was the size of a cat but its tail and gait clearly identified it as a rodent.

The skylight in the French Market
The skylight in the French Market

The problem continues to this day. Sources familiar with the situation tell of a rat dropping onto the back of the neck of a female server in the secret, members-only restaurant Club 33 a few months ago. It just fell from the rafters above and landed plop! onto her neck before scampering away.

Disney is not unique in having rodent problems. Anyone who has ever worked in food service will tell you that you dont have to be a multinational corporation with a rodent as a mascot to get actual rodents in your kitchen -- its just part of the restaurant business.

Such problems are so routine, in fact, that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration publishes Food Defect Action Levels, fancy speak for the amount of contamination necessary before the FDA declares food unsafe. The report is eye-opening. An establishment can average one rodent excrement pellet per 51 grams of cornmeal and not have a problem the FDA takes action only when the average goes up to one pellet per 50 grams. Seven rodent hairs in every 10 grams of ground marjoram is not cause for FDA action, either.

How about mold, a known cause of asthma and other respiratory complications, and the other half of the alleged problem at Goofys Kitchen? The nutmeg in a restaurant can be 9% moldy or insect-infected, canned pineapple can have a 19% mold count, while black currant jam can have a whopping 74% mold count.

Despite what some may view as liberal standards by the FDA, the accusations reported in the O.C. Weekly article against Goofys Kitchen story seem to reach beyond the pale of normal acceptable levels of rodent and mold infestation.

Whether the problem is due to a failure to maintain standards of cleanliness or just a rotting infrastructure, the mold was readily apparent to Cynthia Hanel. She claimed to discover mold growing on the metallic cover used to seal the bin for ice cubes, implying that ice served from that bin may have been exposed to mold spores.

When Hanel complained to management about mold growing on one particular wall, she went home expecting the problem would be fixed. When she returned to work, she saw that the wall in question had been painted over.

Sources report that another Goofys Kitchen employee allegedly made an unpalatable discovery recently while cleaning a soda machine. Scheduled to be cleaned on a daily basis, these drink cells require that the nozzles be removed and soaked overnight. The employee in question reportedly removed the nozzles and saw what looked like a string up in the syrup line; further investigation revealed this "string" to be a worm.

Goofys Kitchen drink menu
Goofys Kitchen drink menu

This story becomes complicated because of internal politics. After complaining of the mold and rodents, Cynthia Hanel left on a medical leave of absence and filed her grievance through the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 681. It was during this phase that the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) received a letter from Disney stating that the problems had been addressed. DOSH subsequently closed its file on the matter.

Did DOSH accept Disneys word on the matter too easily, or did DOSH, understanding that rodents and mold are simply a fact of life in the restaurant business, conclude that this might be a case of a disgruntled worker?

Meanwhile, Cynthia Hanel was automatically terminated per company policy after spending 12 months on her medical leave. This now gives the appearance of a workers compensation claim made by a disgruntled former employee, and thus easier for some to dismiss out of hand -- although Hanel's claim states that it was the conditions in her work area at Goofy's Kitchen that caused her medical problems to begin with.

At the same time, the union representative for Local 681 responsible for the Disneyland Hotel reportedly takes Disneys side and believes that the mold and rodents pose no danger. In fact, the representative makes it no secret that her daughter works for Goofys Kitchen. Is this a conflict of interest, or a note of reassurance from a mother who would not place her daughter in harms way?

Goofy
Goofy

As if the story could use another twist, sources tell MousePlanet that the author of the O.C. Weekly Nick Schou, is said to be friends with John Earl a dues-paying member, and former employee, of the Local 681 of HERE. In fact, Nick Schou profiled Local 681 in another recent O.C. Weekly article, in which he discussed Earl's employment termination from Local 681, as well as claimed that a large backlash against current union leadership is brewing (a claim that Local 681 representatives deny). Does Nick Schou have an agenda with regard to the Local 681?

MousePlanet was contacted by John Earl, who denies any friendship with Nick Schou, or that he was fired from Local 681.

There is one more factor to consider: Government sources report that Nick Schou's article prompted an evaluation of the last several years' worth of inspection reports made by the County of Orange Health Care Agency's Regulatory Health Services office, which showed that there were no indications of mold or rodent problems at Goofy's Kitchen. In addition, the office's Food Facility Closures Web page does not list Goofy's Kitchen. Although there was a more recent inspection, we have not yet obtained a copy of its report, and the exact date of this inspection is unknown at this time.

Mysteries, conspiracy theories, and unanswered questions aside, one thing seems certain: this story is sweeping across the Internet and raging through the Disney fan base through word of mouth, and Disney is facing one very large public relations black eye. If, after a deeper look, Disney discovers that there really is a problem, the existing facility may have to be ripped out, rebuilt, and re-opened with a new name.

"Plutos Worms and Dirt," a dessert offered at Goofys Kitchen
"Plutos Worms and Dirt," a dessert offered at Goofys Kitchen

Even if Disney chooses not to investigate further, the Goofys Kitchen name may be so tarnished that it is a profit liability; in which case Disney should consider refurbishing and renaming the location, mouse in the house or not.

After all, what will go through your mind when you see the "Pluto's Worms and Dirt" sign the next time you dine at Goofys Kitchen?

[Note: MousePlanet attempted to contact Disneyland Resort management and official representatives for H.E.R.E. Local 681 for this article, but was not able to obtain comments before this article went to press.]

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The following photos were submitted to MousePlanet, and are purportedly of various locations within Goofy's Kitchen taken within the past year. We have not verified the authenticity of the photos' contents, and thus cannot vouch for their validity.

Unverified photo purportedly of Goofy's Kitchen

Unverified photo purportedly of Goofy's Kitchen

Unverified photo purportedly of Goofy's Kitchen

Unverified photo purportedly of Goofy's Kitchen

Unverified photo purportedly of Goofy's Kitchen

Unverified photo purportedly of Goofy's Kitchen


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