Last week, I went to Animal Kingdom in Disney World. Last year, we took the same trip to Magic Kingdom. I do not like going to Disney World, but it’s generously paid for by the in-laws and the kids love it, so I tolerate it. Most of the enjoyment I get out of it is through the kids, who look forward to the trip every year, and my God, do they love it.
The thing that makes me the most uncomfortable, however, are the character performers. I feel terrible for these people, who have to put on costumes and subject themselves to the hugs of eager and sometimes entitled tourists. The Princesses have to stand there and pose for pictures, sign autograph books, and engage in small talk with strangers, and I have no doubt that the Disney princess characters are also subjected to the lingering hugs and the grazing hands of old dudes. It feels so dehumanizing, and the excitement level that some of the older people have for meeting these performers makes me very uncomfortable. I hate it, and until today, I tolerated it because I had convinced myself that they must be paid well, receive excellent benefits, and work short shifts, because how in God’s name could anyone do that for eight hours a day?
Well, I was wrong. While Disney does afford thousands of people jobs (Disney World employs something like 70,000 people), they are not particularly well paid. In Disneyland out in California — where the cost of living is even higher — about 85 percent of the 17,000 employees make less than $15 an hour. According to report from the NYTimes, some employees even live in their cars and shower in the park.
According to a survey of thousands of low-wage employees at the park, nearly three-quarters of workers who responded said they do not earn enough money to pay for their basic monthly expenses, and one in 10 said they had been homeless in the past two years.
I did some research and found that it’s not any better for the character performers in Disney World, who start out at $11 an hour. According to one former Disney Princess, she worked eight and a half hours a day, with only 15-minute breaks each hour. After three years, she’d topped out at only $16 an hour, or about $640 a week, or what I figure is about 6 cents per hug. And this particular princess developed inoperable vocal nodes from speaking with that high princess voice for three years. Oh, and there is a short lifespan for a Disney princess, too, as most cannot work in that position after the age of 27.
That is criminal. They have to put on these dresses and costumes, endure about an hour’s worth of makeup, and then stand, hug, and engage with strangers while wearing perfectly composed smiles for eight hours a day in the heat of Orlando, Florida, among sweaty, dirty kids and parents who feel entitled to these “memories” because they paid $50 a head for a character breakfast.
Honestly, the whole thing kind of makes me feel ill. Now that I know the truth, I will no longer be able to assuage my guilt while standing in line so that my kids can get their picture taken with Rafiki.