Abigail Disney wants Disney diehards to 'pay attention' to how theme park workers are paid: 'Cinderella is sleeping in her car!'

The star-studded D23 event was a powerful reminder that this is the world of Walt Disney... and we all just live in it. Founded nearly ninety years ago by its namesake as a humble animation studio, the company has since grown into a global multimedia conglomerate that dominates pop culture discourse and often dictates the way Hollywood businesses are conducted. And few people understand the power -- and passion -- of the Mouse House better than Abigail Disney, Walt Disney's great-niece and granddaughter of the studio's co-founder, Roy O. Disney.
"Every time I give my credit card to someone and they see my last name, I feel this passion for Disney," the 62-year-old filmmaker and philanthropist tells Yahoo Entertainment when asked if he's witnessed the outpouring of affection from fans at D23 be. “I think online culture has only amplified that and given people more intensity than it used to. I'm not like that, but I understand that Disney means a lot to people."
That name, and what it stands for, understandably means a lot to Disney as well, which is why she's become one of the Walt Disney Company's most prominent critics. Disney, a longtime advocate for economic equality, raised eyebrows in 2019 when she posted a lengthy Twitter thread calling the monetary compensation for then-CEO Bob Iger "insane."
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Disney has since pointed to the financial disconnect between the company's senior management and its day-to-day workers, an argument that forms the basis of their new documentary, The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales. Co-directed by Disney and Kathleen Hughes, the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and arrives on VOD September 23, introduces some of the staff who work at Disneyland in Anaheim, California and struggle with each other stay afloat financially, even as theme parks post record profits.
Watch a scene from The American Dream below
"Now is the right time to release this documentary because during the pandemic we've seen billionaires get richer and nothing has been done for essential workers," Disney said. “We have not aligned our language with action. Americans see Disneyland as that treasure and they really care about the people who work there. It makes people unhappy to think that Cinderella sleeps in her car! And that is an important feeling to pay attention to because it is your conscience that speaks.”
However, just like Jiminy Cricket, Disney has discovered that other people's conscience also makes them a target for their anger. As seen in The American Dream, her criticism of executive pay and calls for higher corporate taxes were often met with dismissals and disparaging comments from the financial community and the financial news media. But they also trickled down to ordinary people on Twitter, who seemed surprisingly eager to advocate for CEOs rather than workers. Disney and Hughes both say this attitude reflects how business tycoons have been elevated to celebrity status since the 'greed is good' days of the '80s.
"It took several decades to work on this type of worship," notes Disney. "We adore them for making money, both for investors and for themselves. They've cultivated this idea that no one else can do the work they do — that they are so uniquely talented and so special that no one else can." can replace them. I'm sorry but I'm not buying that."
"Remember [former General Electric CEO] Jack Welch in the '80s and '90s?" Hughes says. “He became a hero because he put down thousands of people and destroyed communities. Somehow he was admired for being 'tough' enough to do what needed to be done and add value to the company. This was a time when we all fell in love with the idea that greed was good and greed would make us all rich."
Disney employees protest the economic injustices outside of Disneyland in The American Dream. (Photo: Courtesy of Fork Films)
Many American workers are still paying - some literally - for this hire today. The Disneyland cast members portrayed in The American Dream come from a variety of backgrounds, from a married couple trying to provide for their children to a single woman looking for stable housing. But all share the same story of living on tight budgets and limited resources resulting from paychecks that haven't increased to meet today's living expenses.
Hughes says some of the film's protagonists -- some of whom no longer work at Disneyland -- were initially "nervous" about participating in the documentary but never experienced intimidation from the company. “They felt it was important to speak up and swallowed their fears. I think the fact that they have a union gave them comfort.” Disney adds that she and Hughes made offers to Disney World Orlando employees, but received a more cautious response. "It's a statement of how weak unions are in Florida," she says, noting that Florida is a right to work where fewer Disney employees are unionized.
As The American Dream reminds us, Walt Disney himself was not a fan of unions. In 1941, Disney animators began a five-week strike until the studio agreed to recognize the Screen Cartoonist's Guild. And Abigail Disney thinks her great-uncle and grandfather would stand by those beliefs today. "They were both very, very, very politically conservative," she admits, while suggesting that Roy Disney, at least, is light years away from an executive like Jack Welch. "He was the warmest, most genuine man you have ever met. For the sake of decency, I just don't see it operating the way a company operates today – I just don't see it.”
Abigail Disney appears before a congressional committee in a scene from The American Dream. (Photo: Courtesy of Fork Films)
For the record, Disney also believes her relatives would have embraced the push for diversity happening in the studio's modern kitchen as well. D23 audiences were treated to early footage of live-action versions of The Little Mermaid and Snow White, in which Halle Bailey and Rachel Zegler played the respective Disney princesses. Images and footage that later appeared online were expectedly met with the usual whining from a small but vocal group, upset that traditionally white characters were being portrayed by black actors - a reaction that has Disney shaking its head.
"I mean, they're all made-up people!" she says laughing. "I don't understand why it's controversial. I live in New York City and the world looks like everything and everyone to me all the time and I love that. It makes me feel alive. I don't want to live in a world where everyone is just boring and white. My grandfather and great-uncle were men of their time, and that wasn't always a good thing. But they were also creative, and they understood the value of a vibrant, changing and diverse culture.”
Public notice for those upset that Hallie Bailey doesn't look realistic enough: It's useful to remember that a) there is no such thing as a mermaid and therefore b) there is such a thing as a causal mermaid not exist. You are welcome
— Abigail Disney (@abigaildisney) September 13, 2022
In the years since Disney first took her case against the public of the modern Walt Disney Company, the company has issued statements dismissing her criticism and pointing to employee benefits such as career development programs and health insurance. Bob Iger himself avoided publicly acknowledging their statements, and this policy was continued under his successor, Bob Chapek, who was at the forefront of D23. Disney says she hasn't had direct contact with Chapek and doesn't expect to anytime soon.
"These are very different men," she says of the two CEOs. “Let's give [Chapek] some time. I didn't get in touch simply assuming they don't want to speak to me. We'll see how time goes by."
Disney CEO Bob Chapek (left) presents Frozen star Idina Menzel with a Disney Legends Award 2022 at this year's D23 Expo (REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni).
At the same time, being a thorn in the company's side seems to have prompted change. Disney says minimum wages have increased significantly in the years since she and Hughes began surveying Disneyland workers. "When we started talking to people in 2018, it was like $11.25 an hour, and then it went up to $15 because they were fighting really hard," she says. “After more fighting, it went up to $18.50, and an Anaheim hotel just agreed to a contract at $23.50 an hour. The living wage in Anaheim is $24, so that's a big change. It would be nice if we could announce a small win, but the credit really goes to the unions and the workers who were brave enough to speak out."
Disney plans to continue speaking out, both through movies like The American Dream and on social media. She recently tagged Disney in an angry Twitter post after it was revealed Disney+ ads were running during a podcast hosted by right-wing political figure Steve Bannon.
Oh come on @Disney!!!! https://t.co/71SQRDJExE
— Abigail Disney (@abigaildisney) September 15, 2022
"I'm horrified," she says of the news. "I'll give them some leniency: they buy ads in bundles and someone else goes out and actually chooses a certain [program]. But it doesn't take much foresight to say things like, 'No Nazis, no insurgents.' Aside from the politics of division and ugliness, you don't want to do that to the [Disney] brand. Obviously, that's not a CEO decision, but it's a leadership issue.
Disney also criticizes the way the company's management has dealt with Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a key supporter of the state's controversial "Don't Say Gay" law. After Chapek initially refused to speak out against the legislation, Chapek reversed course after an outcry from employees, which in turn prompted DeSantis to threaten to overturn the company's Orlando special tax district, which provides private services, including district-specific police and fire brigade. Both sides have since calmed their rhetoric, suggesting to Disney that talks are now continuing behind the scenes.
"There was a reason it got quiet: because everyone realized that no one was winning the argument," she explains. “The special tax district was the work of my grandfather, who was a brilliant and shrewd man and really believed the government would accommodate him. I wish he hadn't because I don't think a private company should have their own police force. I think that's a bad idea! So hard questions have to be asked about it.
"But what Ron DeSantis did was say, 'I'm going to enforce a law at random because I disagree with your political position,'" Disney continues. “It sounds like a hysterical word, but it is nothing less than fascism. This is how fascist regimes rule and get the cooperation of highly powerful, wealthy people. It's not like [DeSantis] saw Disney winning -- he accomplished what he set out to do, which was to go after the most powerful company in his state to send a message to every other company in his state.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a press conference in May at Seminole State College in Sanford, Florida. In April, he signed a bill dissolving the long-standing April Special Tax District. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
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Looking ahead, Disney believes that society's pendulum could swing away from corporations and back toward human power. Taking The American Dream to previews across the country, she was struck by the way the stories of the Disney employees interviewed in the film resonated with audiences.
"I think people are fed up with the idea that if one person takes home $66 million while others can afford to put food on the table, that's the right thing to do," she says. “I keep saying that we have structured an economy as if we were architects constructing a building and we have forgotten that people have to live in it. We need to go back to basics and rebuild. There had to be a way to rethink the nature of a business. You can't just reward property - you have to reward work.”
The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales is currently in limited theatrical release and will premiere September 23 on VOD
Abigail Disney
American film producer
Walt Disney
entrepreneur
Roy O Disney
American businessman (1893–1971)

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