The Man Who Turned Club 33 Upside Downby David Koenig, contributing writer
Joe Cosgrove sounds like a nice enough guy. A chipper 84-year-old with an ever-present smile and Mickey Mouse beret, he's fancied himself, for the last four or so decades, as the ambassador of Club 33, only too happy to be a very public face for a very private place.
He idolizes Walt, to the point he wrote an inspirational book about him. He talks up the club constantly. He's been a member for a long, long time. And, presumably, he and his wife, Janet, have made it possible for more non-members to visit the club than has any other member in the history of the Club 33.
And therein lies the problem.
Club 33's express purpose is exclusivity. It's why hundreds of very well-off individuals and companies pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for the privilege of being able to pay many more thousands of dollars for fine food and drink in a private setting. Consequently, a lot of members haven't been happy with how Cosgrove made the club much more accessible and seemed to treat it like his personal man cave.
The new entrance to Club 33 is through this door, built into a former New Orleans Square shop. MousePlanet file photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.
Over the last three years, in response to complaints by other members, Disney continually tightened its membership requirements, reducing the perks and raising the prices, hoping to stem some of the misuses Cosgrove is accused of. But old Joe adapted and kept finding new ways to take advantage of the situation.
Originally, members were allowed to make reservations at the club for anyone they wished. There was no limit to how many reservations they could make and no requirement that a member be part of the party. Folks with a reservation would arrive at Guest Relations, provide their name, and receive complimentary park-hopper tickets for their entire party. Non-members could spend less money dining at Club 33 than they would have otherwise had to pay just to get in the gate.
There was also plenty of room for abuse. Many diners were annual passholders (or spouses or children who entered flashing the primary's membership card) and would get a complimentary ticket anyway, which many would give away or sell to other people who weren't even dining at the club.
According to one longtime club member, the Cosgroves "would put people in they didn't even know. Anyone asked, they would put them in. Janet bragged to me numerous times about how this month or that month they put 300 to 400 people into the club; 410 was the highest I heard. She was very proud of the fact they put so many people into the club. With the Cosgroves comping 3,600 admissions a year, it had to stop somewhere."
Another member heard that the Cosgroves made so many reservations, that there were lunch services during which almost everyone in the dining room had had their reservations placed by the Cosgroves. Other members eventually found the wait list too crowded to make reservations for themselves, particularly on short notice. They'd have to call up to months in advance.
Finally, in 2012, Club 33 began limiting members to 50 complimentary admission tickets a year. They could still make as many reservations as they liked, but guest #51 and up were responsible for paying their own way into the park.
As well, spouses were now given a separate membership card, so only one person could enter per card. Later, Disney began putting the members' photos on their cards, to ensure they would not be transferred.
'1901' the exclusive lounge inside the Carthay Circle Theatre reserved for Club 33 members. Photo by Disney
Limiting the comp admissions did free up the dining room a bit, but members continued to have trouble getting reservations. The Cosgroves just made sure that most of the people they made unaccompanied reservations for knew they were responsible for their own admission.
So, Club 33 changed the rules again, so that members were limited to 20 unaccompanied reservations a year. For accompanied reservations, members were given a dining pass, so they could escort their guests into the park, dine with them at the club, and then escort them out of the park, with no opportunity for rides, shows, or shopping. As a result, the Cosgroves kept making more reservations than any other member, but now they were making tons of accompanied reservations—with the proviso, apparently, that their guests picked up the check to cover the cost of the Cosgroves' meal. During Christmas, the club's busiest time, the Cosgroves were regularly spotted dining at the club for lunch, then returning that evening for dinner with a new group of seatmates. The club responded by eliminating the dining passes.
Meanwhile, in part to make sure members could enjoy their membership even on short notice, private lounges were added in Disney California Adventure park in 2012 and attached to the club itself in 2014, neither of which required reservations.
Of course, prices were hiked dramatically along the way (to today's $25,000 initiation fee plus $12,000 in annual dues for platinum members), a tactic not only to increase revenue but also seemingly to thin the ranks of some non-wealthy members. Certainly, the Cosgroves fit that profile. They live in a modest home in Lake Forest, California—albeit decorated with Disney mementoes and knick-knacks.
The Cosgroves, said one member, "were well known (prior to the club's remodel) for sitting in Lounge Alley on Saturdays and Sundays and spending three to four hours there, snacking on the dessert buffet. The area was supposed to be for those waiting to be seated, but (hostesses) frequently couldn't bring people to the area because the Cosgroves would come up, snack and chat with the servers, who were trying to work. They would also go in the dining room and introduce themselves to everyone."
According to one member, the Cosgroves were known for hanging out in Lounge Alley, seen here decorated for the holidays before the renovation began. MousePlanet file photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.
Another member adds that "sitting in 1901 or the new lounge and ordering only water is called ‘a round of Cosgroves.'"
The Cosgroves allegedly remained Gold-level members until late last year when they upgraded to the Platinum level, which cost nearly three times as much but gave them far more perks, including access to the two lounges.
Platinum members also receive four membership cards, instead of two. So, supposedly, the Cosgroves funded their upgrade by selling the other two cards to people who wanted to join the club without paying the steep initiation fee.
Disney had had enough. In January of this year, Disney changed the rules again, so that secondary card holders cannot visit the lounges unless they are accompanied by a primary card holder (or his/her spouse). More significantly, the club refused to renew the Cosgroves' membership.
Joe was, naturally, devastated. The club has been his life and being its conduit to the outside world his identity. He claims Disney never gave him any reasons for "unilaterally, unceremoniously and abruptly terminat(ing)" his "Lifetime Membership." He called and wrote management numerous times, but received no response. He could think of only two infractions during his tenure. The first was more than a decade ago, when he was temporarily suspended from the club for holding a special event on the premises—until he produced a letter signed by the club manager giving him permission to hold the event. He was reinstated immediately.
'1901' the exclusive lounge inside the Carthay Circle Theatre reserved for Club 33 members. Photo by Disney
His second admitted infraction came back in 2012, when he gave two comp tickets to a friend, who donated the tickets to a children's charity auction, in violation of club rules. Cosgrove insists he didn't know the tickets would be auctioned off, that his friend knew what she was doing was against the rules, and that his friend signed a sworn affidavit taking full blame, exonerating Cosgrove, and begging for his reinstatement.
When that didn't work, Joe had a lawyer friend of his, Mark Corrinet, write to the park. Twice. Still no response. Reluctantly, on June 22, Corrinet filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court. The filing, it claims, "is the last thing plaintiff Joseph Cosgrove wants to do. But after having his contractual and personal rights trammeled by a new generation of millennials trying to convert Club 33 into a billionaires-exclusive domain—file this suit he must."
Claiming to fall "within the ambit of the protections provided by California's financial elder abuse laws," the suit seeks general damages and emotional distress of more than $25,000, costs of the suit, and, by far most importantly, reinstatement of his membership. The suit claims Cosgrove's membership "was immediately cancelled" after management learned of the charity auction, in clear violation of club rules. The club rulebook states, "The membership will be placed on hold and the member sent a letter notifying the member of the reason for the hold status…. Termination is the last step in resolving issues inconsistent with the spirit of the membership program or as provided by the rules herein."
The Court of Angels is now a waiting area for Club 33 guests. MousePlanet file photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.
Somewhat contradictorily, Corrinet claims that Cosgrove was "immediately stripped of his membership," while simultaneously complaining that Disney knew about the charity auction since 2012 and "sat on it for two years." Corrinet says he would have advised his friend against suing if he had clearly, knowingly violated club rules, but Cosgrove insisted on his innocence and that Disney failed to show proof of—or even cite—any specific transgressions for the dismissal.
"Disney has alluded to 'other violations' yet Disney has declined to provide proof of any wrongdoing," Corrinet says. "They would prefer to play the Big Bad Wolf. Ultimately he will be reinstated into the club. Why play games? Perhaps older members complained? Are they clearing the decks?"
Disney has not yet formally responded to the suit. A Disney representative, however, says the Cosgroves' membership was not revoked, but rather the club declined to continue it when it came up for renewal at the start of this year. Second, Cosgrove was "repeatedly warned" of transgressions during the course of his membership. And, third, Cosgrove was given specific reasons why he was not being allowed to remain in the club—among them for re-selling club tickets to a special event. (One member says she's talked to guests who say they've bought Candlelight Procession tickets from Cosgrove at a mark-up. Another member says the rumor going around the club was that Disney set up a sting operation to catch the couple re-selling tickets.)
Asked if they re-sold any tickets, Corrinet says, "the Cosgroves absolutely denied it. If Disney has these records, then why haven't they brought them forward?"
The French lift from the original Club 33 lobby was reused as a very intimate seating area in Le Salon Nouveau. MousePlanet file photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.
Disney says the action it took against Cosgrove is highly unusual, but it was left with no choice in order to "preserve the integrity of the club for other members." Of the five members interviewed for this article, this response was typical: "The Cosgrove lawsuit against Disney upsets me. The stories that staff and other members told were frustrating. In my opinion, (the Cosgroves') actions led to a lot of rule changes. It seems like they were using the club as a cottage industry."
Corrinet takes Disney's official excuse to mean a tiny minority of selfish members are to blame. "I have folders two inches thick from other members in support of Mr. Cosgrove, and infuriated that Disney removed him," the attorney counters. "Yes, he's made it possible for many, many people to enjoy the club, which was the intent of Walt Disney when he created the club. Evidently, some members were upset that Mr. Cosgrove invited common people into their hoity-toity little club. But to say he's the reason for (all the changes) is the height of stupidity, as far as I'm concerned."
Certainly, Cosgrove has his backers, as a quick glance at all the five-star reviews for his paean to Walt (from friends like attorney Corrinet) will attest. Yet, like his idol Walt, Cosgrove is also a storyteller. He boasts that he used to pal around with Walt in the 1960s, though conveniently has no photos or correspondence or witnesses to back up his claim. (Someone who asked for photographic evidence was told "his ex-wife kept all the pictures and burned them.")
Joe also claims that, because of his friendship with Walt, he was personally invited to become one of the founding members of Club 33 in 1967—even though when the Club first opened there were no individual members, only companies who worked with Disney as a sponsor, and Walt had been dead for six months. The club didn't introduce individual memberships until the 1970s. Disney's official records show Cosgrove's membership began in 1979, and servers who started at the club in the late 1960s confirm Cosgrove didn't begin frequenting the club until the late 1970s.
Going forward, Cosgrove appears willing to do whatever it takes to get back in the club. Corrinet expects to receive a formal response from Disney by the third week of July. "We will go for discovery and the public will see that Disney has lied to the public and attempted to ruin Mr. Cosgroves' good name," he says. "For six months we've been sending letters. They can't hide any more. Within 30 days, we expect to receive a response. What they've done is wrong. It shouldn't be done. I'm going to open up Club 33 like a can of sardines!"
Since the Cosgroves have left, the Club has begun returning some of the perks they took away. The dining passes have been reinstated for corporate members, but not yet for individual members. Individual members can have an "authorized caller" (their secretary) call in to schedule reservations for them, but the authorized caller can't make unaccompanied reservations. However, the authorized caller for a corporate member can call in for unaccompanied reservation.
The club continues to look at how members are using the club and appears willing to continue tweaking. One member speculated, "Will we get back unlimited reservations? Probably, eventually. I wouldn't mind if they did, using the same set-up we have now (three days prior for Friday through Sunday, two weeks for Monday through Thursday, except Christmas). Will we get unlimited comps? No."
As well, club management has seemed willing to meet with members who have been especially hard hit by the recent rule changes (such as for unaccompanied children of Platinum members). Exceptions are handled on a case-by-case basis, with the members interviewed by management to plead their particular case. Some who have gone through the process noted they were satisfied with the resolution, but unable to discuss the specifics due to signing a non-disclosure agreement.
Now, Cosgrove isn't alone. Other scorned Disneyland lovers reluctantly hauled their beloved to court in the hopes of winning back access. There have been numerous annual passholders who are now permanently ex-annual passholders because they took pictures where they weren't supposed to, or were accused of stalking cast members. There was the private tour guide who was providing her clients with ill-gotten perks. The one thing every spurned plaintiff has in common? They also lost their cases. Disney doesn't bounce its best customers on a whim. In this case, my money's on the Mouse.
On a related legal note, Friday July 17 is the release date for my newest book, The People v. Disneyland: How Lawsuits & Lawyers Transformed the Magic.
I'll have more details next week. I can only promise that all proceeds will not go toward my future Club 33 membership…
And one more shameless plug: the infamous gaggle of Jungle Cruise skippers-turned-stand-up comics have finally hit the big time. Sunday July 12 at 7 p.m. the Skipper Show is coming to the Improv in Brea, Ca. Tickets, at this writing, are still available. I hope to see you there!
While I don't know Mr. Cosgrove personally, from the information provided, he is far from a kindly old gentleman/ goodwill ambassador. He is a scam artist, plain and simple. He and his wife have clearly taken advantage of several loopholes in the system, and have done so for decades. Most private clubs have an over-arching code of conduct, those members that are in violation of it are removed. The Cosgroves should consider themselves lucky that they were able to bend the rules to their favor for so many years.
This is the part of the story that annoys me - and this isn't about David's story but about every story in the media that I've read: This isn't just Joe. This is Joe and his wife. She supposedly bragged about how many people they were getting into the club, (see David's article,) Joe wasn't in this alone, but when it came time to sue Disney, she sure seemed to take a step back and push Joe out there to take the heat, didn't she?
The Cosgrove's lawyer keeps saying this: "Evidently, some members were upset that Mr. Cosgrove invited common people into their hoity-toity little club."
That part keeps bugging me. I'm blessed - I am not a member but I've been invited to dine in the club and I have visited both of the lounges. I have never felt like I'm hoity toity. I'm a mom who owns a minivan and wears clothes from Target and Costco. None of the members I know are "Hoity Toity." If, as this article says, the Cosgroves were booking out the reservations, and they were bragging that they did so, I would expect the members to be a tad frustrated that they couldn't get reservations. That's the whole point of belonging to a club - so you can get in to your club and bring your own family and friends. Who may also possibly be common people.
Thank you, I kept thinking the same thing.
I read this story early this morning, but didn't post as I was wondering how others would take it. Seems like everyone's in agreement. This guy is like the schoolyard bully who keeps pushing it, and then when he gets caught looks around with wide eyes and says "I was only teasing!" The Cosgroves should lose all privileges permanently.
I'm very interested to see how the court case turns out.
Me, too. I just don't see how Disney would've moved forward if they didn't have their i's dotted and their t's crossed.
I know it sounds maccabre, but I'm thinking Disney acted now knowing full well if Cosgrove took any legal action, he wouldn't be around to see it go to court. The man is 84 and Disney lawyers can drag it out for many years.
I actually had the other thought. That they had perhaps not taken action to strip him of his pass for as long as they had (while changing the rules for everyone to try to curb the most egregious abuse) with the hopes that he would choose to not renew his membership for medical or other age-related reasons. But then perhaps something had happened (or someone spoke with their lawyers) and they decided that if they let this individual get away with an egregious abuse then the next person who broke the rule would point to this couple and demand that Disney not enforce their rules against them either.
The lawyer's tone seriously bothers me. The entire language of the court documents is a poor reflection of members, Disney, and the Cosgroves. Seems to me they hired a lawyer that wanted the limelight.
I know even club members agree that clothes from Costco are a score deal. You have to save money to pay those memberships somehow!
This reminds me of one of my favorite "Hoity Toity" stories - My parents live in a very affluent zip code. When I go visit them, I see the cars that the people in their neighborhood drive and many of the cars in MY neighborhood cost a lot more. In fact, I'm pretty sure that when my husband and I bought our cars new, they cost more than the cars my parents drive. My parents have never had cable television. Ever. I could go on and on about how they spend or, rather, DON'T spend their money.
Everyone budgets differently. Just because someone can afford something doesn't make them billionaires. And just because someone is wealthy doesn't mean they're Hoity Toity or "look down upon" the "common people".
I think that some of those club members and I have an affection for the same Costco pants, if I'm recalling properly from someone I met one time.
Here's my view:
If he worked within the rules to manipulate every benefit he could get out of his membership, more power to him. Only difference between that and what I've seen ALL of my Disney friends do is scale. And if Disney in response worked within their established guidelines to end his membership, sucks to be him. Heck, most of my accesses to the club have been due to the profligate use of other people's memberships.
If he worked outside of the agreed to rules to get whatever financial benefit he could get out of his membership, more power to him. Again, behavior I've seen many of my Disney friends do on a smaller scale. Sucks for him he got caught and has been punished for it. Such is the life an attempted criminal (in the non-criminal sense) mastermind.
But regardless, since I haven't seen any strong evidence of Disney violating a contractual agreement in them ending his membership, sucks to be him.
Really? So if they abused the system, sold admissions, got hundreds of passes a month, and violated the spirit if not the rule of the club's regulations, that's all OK?
If all he did was violate "the spirit" then yeah, I'm completely ok with that. Whether or not I'd do it myself may be a different thing. But if you want a contract to enforce the "spirit" of the rule then make it the rule.
If he did more than that, then I'm also ok with it. That's why contracts include sections on what happens if you violate the actual "rules." That doesn't make it wrong to violate the rules, just lays out the cost of doing so.
I'm also ok with Disney doing anything legal to terminate any memberships they no longer want to extend for whatever reason. Again, so far I've heard nothing that would make me think he should prevail in his lawsuit.
Sounds like the catch here is that Disney decided to not -renew- his membership, which, of course, is different that -terminating- his membership. In essence, Disney is saying that they don't wish for him to be a member anymore, which I think Disney has the right to. Its not like once you are a member you have the right to be a member for as long as the member sees fit. Its not like there is "tenure" for club membership.
He manipulated the system - multiple times, which Disney tried to curb - multiple times. Unfortunately, Disney seemed to have changed their rules mainly based upon this guy's manipulation of the rules time and time again, which also impacted other members that properly followed the rules. Then he kept on doing what he could to find the loopholes. Going off of what the article said, it possibly cost Disney a lot of cash for this guy to be a member, even above and beyond the income from the normal membership fees.
If I were Disney, I would seriously look into rewriting the rules of membership that would level-set everyone so that it does its best to restore club membership to its former glory while making sure there are guidelines for fair use. Im sure that there will always be members that will find a loophole or two and take advantage of them, but Im willing to bet that it would not be to the same extreme, significantly impacting club use for other members. Just my guess.
With the current $25k initiation fee, I would be livid if a club I joined decided to "not renew" my membership after only a year or two. People pay that sort of initiation fee with the expectation that it will last them until they themselves choose to not renew. That said, I have no idea what procedures (if any) Disney has in place to return an initiation fee if Disney decides to cancel/not renew a membership and if there were initiation fees when he first joined, it was probably next to nothing. But I'm still disturbed at the thought of this happening to someone else/me (should I ever find a spare $85k that I can throw at Disney to pay for the first 5 years).
I had heard that a lot of the club's changes were to curb egregious abuse from a few members. I hadn't realized just how bad the abuse was.
I know of 2 cases, one where the member felt the club had changed more than they had expected and wanted to resign their membership, and another where a member had caused issues and the club asked them to resign or they would be terminated. In both cases, they received their initiation fee back.
The Cosgroves upgraded to the current Platinum Membership with no additional initiation fees. They were platinums for one year and got more than their single increased payment back by selling benefits in clear violation of the spirit and letter of the rules (which were very well defined in a thick membership booklet).
I suspect if someone looked it up, Joe only joined in 1979 at the behest of his new wife Janet who realized they could profit from their membership.
I believe they have made well in excess of $100,000 per year peddling their benefits (no "bent rules" not just the "spirit", BROKEN with a vengeance)
- they sold tickets to the Club 33 Octoberfest with a 100% markup
- they sold books with a free reservation (but they got $100+ for the $10 book). I bet he can't sell them at that price today. . .
- they had an agreement with a travel agent to sell reservations -- 1000s of reservations a year x $100 kickback = $100,000+++ /yr, (I've heard as high as $200 per res)
Before they upgraded to Platinum, Janet Cosgrove put down the club and the club management at every opportunity: "they cut our benefits", "bait and switch", etc. Then they upgraded to the "ripoff" Platinum level, and continued to abuse the rules. I've personally seen an entire table introduce themselves to Janet AT THE TABLE. She accompanied multiple groups each day to the club to get around the 20 per year limit on unaccompanied reservations.
I agree with the comment that Janet was very much a part of the violations, but I disagree that Joe "is out taking the heat". Joe is simply the likeable character of the two and can better use the "elder" card, and makes a better defendant in court.
His lawsuit claims protections under California's Elder Financial Abuse law.
I think it's really interesting that the he's claiming "substantial loss of earnings and contacts" in his suit. [54c] He's claiming more than $25,000 in damages for things including "loss of earnings, earning capacity and otherwise." [68-1] As to special damages, he's claiming "loss of earnings, lost sales commissions, use and possession of real and personal property and otherwise," in excess of $25,000. [68-2].
He's also asked for a jury trial, which, should it get to that, I feel is a mistake.
So he's claiming lost income because he now can't sell things that it was against the rules to sell in the first place? I think he's hoping to get a jury trial and then stack the jury with people who will feel sorry for him. If he stuck with a bench trial, the judge would actually (hopefully) READ and comprehend what he reads.
Is his wife young enough that she's not able to claim the elder financial abuse? Isn't it a joint membership?
I know that business people take clients out all the time to conduct business meetings, but he would have a hard time proving that the arrangements he made had earnings/sales potential. I also do not think that a club membership would fall under the clause of "real and personal property.
I dont think this will end well no matter what happens.
Actually a club membership (be it a golf club or Club 33) IS considered "personal property"--see the following article from the ABA: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j...97653015,d.cGU
I understand why some of the legal complaints are written the way that they are - but I am always amused by earnings arguments.
If he proves that he was profiting from his membership in order to prove damages, it will be easier for Disney to prove that he was misusing his membership/violating their rules.
The easiest way to prove profits is from tax returns, but I would be surprised if they reported income every time a "friend" paid for their meal.
The easiest way to prove profits is from tax returns, but I would be surprised if they reported income every time a "friend" paid for their meal.
This might be a Captain Obvious comment - To me it feels like they think they can win with a jury trial by playing the old man sympathy card vs. the big mean cold corporation - WHAT WOULD WALT DO!?!?!? -- and that they're banking on the jury ignoring the law and, you know, actual evidence.
Thanks for the info.
They haven't been married that long. 1979 - that's 36 years? My understanding is that they've been married 10 - 15 years or so? It might be interesting to look at the records to see their reservation patterns and how those developed over time. At what point did they gain momentum, etc. I wonder, if this case does get to court, if that will come out. As much as they say they want to take the lid off of Club 33 and reveal all sorts of "secret" information, I wonder if they're prepared for all of THEIR information to be brought out into the open?
I disagree. I see this as akin to making yourself a "free" salad from the topping bar at Pecos Bill's. There's no posted rule against it, and the CM's are not likely to say anything, but I'd like to think that most people have integrity.
Part of Disney's customer service magic IMO involves not having a thousand rules or signs prohibiting this or that. And CM's will rarely tell you "No" without a cheerful explanation (except when I was once denied a 1-hour late checkout from Poly).
I feel that if Disney offers such an accommodating atmosphere, it's incumbent upon us to not take unreasonable advantage of it, lest more and more restrictions get put in place, as happened in this story. There's always gotta be that one person who ruins it for the rest.
Not so much "a few" as "one". Yeah, there were other members doing slightly squirrely stuff, but nothing on the scale that the Cosgroves were operating.
Goodness, that is hilarious! So his suit is explicitly saying that he lost income because of this? Seeing as you're not allowed to make money off your membership like this, it shouldn't even get to a trial; if I were a judge I'd just throw it out!
So essentially, it feels like he was claiming that he owned a piece of the club, like he was a shareholder. When in fact, it was more like he had a lease (like leasing an apartment or a car). The owners decided not to renew the lease. They didn't terminate the lease, they just didn't renew it/offer a new one. Seems OK to me for Disney to do that.
And honestly, it's a private club. They really can set whatever rules they want. AND terminate or not-renew any membership.
Unless it's because of a reason that's specifically excluded, of course. But I think that is why he is pulling in the 'I'm an old guy and you're taking advantage of me' card out of the deck.