Jere Downs writes about how Abigail E. Disney lets her conscience be her guide.
The Walt Disney Company films are full of secret doors and portals to other worlds.
Abigail E. Disney, granddaughter and grandniece to The Walt Disney Company co-founders, Roy O. and Walt, fell through her own trap door late one summer night in 2018.
Alone at bedtime, she cracked open her laptop and accepted a Facebook message request from Ralph, a guy in California. Ralph and Trina, his wife, were both longtime janitors at Disneyland in Anaheim. Alongside fellow union custodians, they were fighting The Walt Disney Company for a living wage, for steady schedules, and better health care benefits.
Could she help?
She could listen.
Disney quietly flew to California to hear workers vent. She learned about union surveys that showed two-thirds of Disney cast members relied on food banks. One in 10 had no home. Many worked constantly changing schedules that fell short of the 40 hours per week required to receive better employee benefits.
Disney recalled how when she was a child, those jobs provided middle-class security. Her beloved grandfather Roy O. Disney, she added, “saw himself as making jobs possible for people to live their lives.” Health care and retirement, she adds, “were covered.”
But the place that once offered middle-class workers a dignified living and middle-class customers a fantasy vacation had become a battleground.
Back home in New York after listening to cast members, Disney found herself torn.
“You can’t sit in a room with that many people telling you they can’t afford to put food on the table or who say they don’t buy food so they can buy insulin and say ‘I have no obligation here,’” she says.
Disney’s world had always been cleaved into two parts. On the West Coast was the shareholder-driven, for-profit Walt Disney Company. Back East, New York City was her home base for documentary filmmaking and private philanthropy.
“I thought I had been able to just cordon off my California history and my family and do what I thought were good things,” she said.
But down the rabbit hole she had just fallen into, the firewall was crumbling between the corporate behemoth and her own mission-driven work.
The time had come. Her status as a Disney and her life’s work pushing for systemic change, the empowerment of women, LGBTQ rights, and reducing inequality had, in fact, become one.
It was time to call The Walt Disney Company out. It would be messy and sometimes painful but “I just had to integrate it,” she said. “It just felt like a call.”
And just like that, Abigail E. Disney followed a storyline that should be familiar to any Disney movie fan — the heroine who risks everything to follow her heart and her sense of what is right.
On that narrow path ahead, she knew her name would be a lightning rod to draw painful attacks.
“I knew it would go nuclear,” she said. “I didn’t want to be known as the gadfly.”
Besides, the road to redemption is littered with the bodies of countless other social investors, usually men, who built fortunes through exploitation. Andrew Carnegie paid thugs to break strikers in steel mills. John D. Rockefeller reigned over a railroad monopoly forcibly dismantled by the federal government. Alfred Nobel manufactured munitions.
She knew there was another way.
Disney resolved to raise her voice, fueled by her creativity, her wealth, and her connections. She could tell a story about family and people, about what is right and what is wrong.
The latest result of Disney’s struggle was the January debut of her film, The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, at the Sundance Film Festival. In the film, Disney theme parks are “ground zero of the widening inequality in America.”
The documentary follows janitors Ralph and Trina working the graveyard shift. They live with Trina’s parents with their four young children. They despair of ever owning a home of their own in Southern California. The film shows how they and other janitors struggle to put food on the table, pay for health care, and how most surrender the dream of a career at the “Happiest Place on Earth.”
Workers lives contrast starkly with the compensation awarded to top Walt Disney Co. executives — in 2019, then Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger’s compensation totaled US$65.6 million. While The Walt Disney Co. stock traded at historic highs and shareholder returns rose more than 500%, cast member benefits continued to shrink.
Beyond The Walt Disney Company theme parks employing some 30,000 people in California and 80,000 in Florida, the story widens to reflect on American workers mired in stagnant wages and dwindling hope. And while Disney narrates the film with flashbacks to her forebears’ personal values that upheld individual dignity and hard work, the narrative damns the common corrosive culture of zero-sum capitalism.
“I feel like I want to shake the whole world awake,” Disney said. “When corporations manage costs, it is a nice expression. But those consequences for human beings are devastating.”
As a former Catholic, she knows what she is doing.
“Guilt gets a bad rap. I don’t think there is anything wrong with constructive guilt if you bring home US$65.6 million a year and people who work for you are not able to feed their children,” she said.
She beats that drum in mainstream media opinion columns, public appearances, in her TED Talk, and on All Ears with Abigail Disney, a podcast she has independently produced since 2020.
She has also called out the company for not actively opposing — until recently — the “Don’t Say Gay” education legislation in Florida. Amid cast member outcry, The Walt Disney Company backed the LGBTQ civil rights call. Company support of workers sparked conservative pickets outside the park in Orlando.
It’s no coincidence, she says, that once a magical wonderland where Americans could relax on common ground, The Walt Disney Company finds itself smack in the center of controversy in this era of widening inequality.
“The center cannot hold,” she says.
"It feels like I am really in the place I need to be. It is the first time I put together my capacity for advocacy, my ability to make films, my weird access and relationships altogether into a single theme and deployed them for a single purpose for people who need me."
Now is also a time, she said, for people of wealth and privilege to sweep away the artificial separation between mission-driven work and the business strategies that created and continue to grow their wealth, this is to say nothing of unpacking traditional expectations for portfolio management.
“We are all implicated. We are all complicit,” she said. “If I don’t really interrogate the 8% [company growth forecasts], then I am choosing a lack of knowledge of the underpinnings of my well-being.”
These days Disney says she hews closer to notions of less financial return and focuses more on the triple bottom line. For her, that means embracing lower-yielding investments such as loans to community organizations or small socially conscious businesses.
To her peers, Disney has more to say: It is a powerful thing to speak your conscience, like Jiminy Cricket.
Today, she says, “It feels like I am really in the place I need to be. It is the first time I put together my capacity for advocacy, my ability to make films, my weird access and relationships altogether into a single theme and deployed them for a single purpose for people who need me.”