The Florida Project & Disney’s Broken Circle
(Essay Excerpt)

Look around in a crowd and it’s easy to feel both physically confined and personally alienated. Environments like Disneyland and Disney World, along with so many of the stories produced by the entertainment giant, strive to give us the illusion of being one happy, global family. This is not inherently insidious, but it’s time to accept that it’s not completely innocent either. It’s quite easy to lose one’s bearings these days, and in a world drowned by information, cultural safety rafts can be excused as necessary evils.

A few months ago, I stepped out of the Los Angeles home I am privileged enough to rent and ordered a ride share that I am lucky enough to afford (and perhaps, given certain open secrets about the implications of these services, careless enough to patronize). On the way to my friend’s apartment, the driver and I struck up a conversation, and I soon learned that she was one of the first female security guards at Disneyland, back in the days of Walt. Decades gone from that halcyon time, she still cherishes her memories of the work. She said it was the best part of her life. There was a community amongst the employees, and all their families knew one another. In fact, her daughter still works for Disney, as one of the princess cast members who spend their days wholeheartedly giving themselves over to the great dream of Walt’s world.

But a new tone entered her voice as we kept talking about her daughter. She told me Walt wouldn’t be happy about the way things were being run now. It wasn’t the same place. It wasn’t the same dream. Perhaps she was referring to the 2018 report by the Coalition of Resort Labor Unions outlining the fact that one-tenth of Disneyland employees had “been homeless in the last two years…[and that] nearly three-quarters [said] they don’t bring in enough money to cover their monthly basic expenses.” Average hourly wages have dropped since the turn of the 21st century even as the workforce ages up into the myriad responsibilities of American adulthood. All the while, corporate profits continue to rise.

Was my driver correct? Would Walt be disappointed with the direction of his company? In 2019, Walt’s grand-niece Abigail Disney spoke out at the first annual Fast Company Impact Council against the monumental bonus Disney CEO Bob Iger received in the wake of the Fox merger. This put his pay at over a thousand times more than the average Disney employee. According to Abigail: “I did the math, and I figured out that he could have given personally, out of pocket, a 15% raise to everyone who worked at Disneyland, and still walked away with $10 million.”

As my ride share moved across the nightscape of Los Angeles, that factory of national illusion and delusion, the conversation with my driver soon shifted into a different gear. The hardships and inequities placed upon her family by this new, bold Disney had politically reactivated her. Now, she believes in a new dream, spoken by a new “visionary” business leader. Certainly, this billionaire can save America. Either way, come 2020, he’ll certainly get her family’s vote once again.

On that dire note, I was dropped off on a busy street corner in Hollywood. Walking to my friend’s apartment, I passed club goers in expensive clothes, street vendors sheened with sweat beneath midnight stove light, and homeless Angelenos catching a few moments’ rest before an enforced migration to another Main Street, on another night, in another reality. A sky-high neon sign blasted into radiance like fireworks above the Magic Kingdom, but in that moment we all felt like strangers to one another.