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.
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.
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.
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."
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?"
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!