Disneyland: the Happiest Place on Earth

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Growing up fifteen minutes away from Anaheim, California and being a Disneyland passholder, I have the most vivid memories going as a child. From birthdays, to “mommy and me” days, to just any random day, we would go to Disneyland. We always made sure we explored the towns, met as many characters as possible, and ate so much food. It was not a real Disneyland trip unless I got a churro and some cotton candy. With being younger, going on rides was challenging at times. I never was a huge fan of the rides because they were scary for me. Of course I would never have to think about going on The Teacups or It’s a Small World, but the others were challenging for me. My sister, who is two years and six months younger than I am, loved going on rides. I’d have to be brave and go with her because I knew if she could do it, so could I.

In 2011 our family moved to Northern California and slowly visits to Disneyland became less frequent. I have vague memories of going back a year after moving while in town for a cousin’s wedding. It was nice visiting again and going with more family than usual because of the circumstance. But that was the last time I have been there until five years later. I would always think about Disneyland and how much I missed all of the magic and happiness that surrounded me there. What I didn't really realize is how much a perspective can change in five years.

My next Disneyland attendance was prompted by a high school field trip. This small Disneyland trip was an “add on” to our main field trip which was the Chapman Theatre Festival. Our last day was reserved for Disneyland. I remember being so excited to go that I couldn't sleep the night before we went.

Disneyland through my teenage eyes changed from my childhood in many ways. First off, seeing things as a kid everything seemed so big, but I came back and it was all smaller to me. Then I realized that it’s not necessarily as magical as I had remembered. Of course it still had the essence of happiness and joy and magic, but just in a different way. I no longer saw Disneyland in the way where I was the little girl in her Sleeping Beauty dress taking a picture with Princess Aurora, instead I watched other little girls get that same picture I got when I was six. It still brought the same amount of love and excitement, just in a different way-- in a way where it is less selfish and more carefree. Not only did I come back to Disneyland five years older, but I came with my friends and my boyfriend at the time. It was the first time going without my parents and with a boyfriend. I now realize my priorities years ago focused on meeting princesses while more recently my priority changed to focus on getting to spend time with boyfriend while in Disneyland.

Is Disneyland really the happiest place on earth? Visitors of Disneyland continue to pay increasing prices without knowing the apparent unhappiness in modern employees, the impact of their low wages, and unnecessary regulations and rules required to work at Disneyland, despite its reference and imagery as the “Happiest Place on Earth.”

Disneyland’s founder, Walt Disney, envisioned a land where adults and children alike could escape from their worlds while being educated and having fun. The original Disneyland, located in Anaheim, California, was land bought in the farming community and built where orange groves had existed soon before that. In 1950, Walt Disney started to draft and design the amusement park. Just four years later, the beginnings of construction began. This was a big event. Invitations were sent out to people for the opening day of Disneyland which was set for summer of 1955. As time was ticking and the days got closer and closer to opening, workers there had realized it really wasn't ready to open. But, it opened anyway. On opening day they ran out of food and water. People’s shoes got stuck in the drying asphalt, but other visitors came back the next day. Unfinished Disneyland did not have an effect on people's attendance because regardless of the flaws, it still managed to bring happiness to the visitors.

After Disneyland’s great success, in 1965 Walt Disney thought to build a bigger park in Orlando, Florida. He started drafting his ideas for the new part but then, in 1966, he passed away from lung cancer. After Walt Disney’s death, his vision of Disneyland and expansion continued. Despite the devastation, his colleagues continued working on this project opening Disney “World” in October of 1971 in his honor. From then on, Disneyland has gotten more and more successful and includes parks in Tokyo Japan, Paris France, and in Hong Kong China.

Although Disneyland is extremely popular and receives numerous accolades, the behind-the-scenes element may tell a slightly different story. Though cast members at Disneyland seem to have a smile on their face, the reality of their existence may be contrary to their portrayal. Cast members are extremely underpaid. Cast members are paid less than $15.00 an hour. One in ten cast members consider themselves “homeless.” Some live in their cars, and others can't afford to eat three meals a day. Cast members have voiced their complaints and suggested to build an affordable living space in Anaheim but allegedly, Disneyland refuses. And of course the big rule is to “Smile at the Park,” but it doesn't come easily for the 43% of cast members that are in need of dental care but can't afford it. For many cast members, this is their main source of income, and the fact that Disneyland does not have a childcare center makes things hard on the working parents who not only don't make enough money to feed their children, but also cannot provide them a place to stay while they are working.

In an LA Times article written by Peter Dreier, it reveals that 80% of cast members are proud of the work they do but feel underappreciated, overworked, and underpaid. This may seem inaccurate, but the authors of this article have been studying this for a year and they know what they're talking about. They did an anonymous survey of cast members where each one of them had an identification number so they could only respond once, and of the people who took the survey, it was found that 58% of cast members were unionized. It is so troubling to hear that wages are so low for these cast members, yet Disney is one of the most profitable corporations.

CEO Bob Iger of Disney is paid more than 1,000 times the median salary of all Disney employees. If Disneyland continues its success, his pay could go from 8.3 million dollars to 162.5 million dollars a year which levels out to 9,284 of cast members’ pay (Dreier). It's hard to hear this information after reading the terrible things Iger says about these hard working cast members. Abigail Disney, Walt Disney’s great niece, responded to Bob Iger’s actions by explaining that he may make more money than the cast members there, but he really should be paid the same amount as those scraping gum off of the underside of benches (Palmer).

Visitors treat cast members poorly quite frequently. Many say mean words and try to harm them with physical violence. Cast members can also sense a bad feeling towards a visitor while they are posing for a picture with them. They frequently feel threatened at times, or mocked and harrassed while doing the jobs they love. The treatment by patrons does not contribute to an enjoyable environment despite the love of Disneyland.

Similarly, the requirements mandated by the rules and regulations of Disney cast members are strict. There are two different areas you can work in: face characters and costume characters. Face characters are characters where you can see their face like princesses. Costume characters are those who are dressed up in full costume with their face covered like Mickey Mouse. Both types of characters have strict guidelines in order to become cast members and continue to be cast members. As mentioned in the article 10 Instructable Requirements of Being a Disney ‘Face’ Character, if someone applies for an interview, they can't expect to be put in a place where they want to be.

Face characters have to go through a very strict audition process. All new cast members must start out as costume characters, even if they were accepted to be a face character. First, the people have to realize that if they're 5’8” there is no way they will have them play Tinkerbell. For consistency in appearance, all princesses and fairies have to be remotely the same height. The cast member needs to have the correct overall look of that princess to make them look as similar as they can. Dress sizes for the princesses only go up to size 10 , limiting the difference in sizes for the different princesses. With that in mind, there is also the facial aspect of it. If someone has a scar, or mole, or gap in their teeth, unfortunately they would probably not get the job. As for someone like Gaston, the man playing him should be in great shape and ready to show off his muscles.

There is an enormous amount of acting that goes into being a face character. The cast member has to aggravate their voice to match the tone of their character, as well as study the movie their character is in and learn that character’s mannerisms. And, as any good actor would, the cast member must have a fully sketched out background they’ve made for themselves so they are available to answer any question asked of them.

No visiting of a princess is ever complete without an autograph from them. Each cast member must figure out a consistent autograph for their character. With being a princess, cast members have to wear heavy makeup and warm costumes. It's hard to wear warm costumes in the heat and humidity in places like Anaheim, California and Orlando, Florida.

Costume characters, like Mickey and Minnie Mouse, have less restrictive rules. They have the same height requirements in that Minnie Mouse will be played by a person no taller than 5’2”. Costume characters have an easier job because they don't talk. But the heat affects them just as much as it does the princesses.

There are many other jobs outside of being a cast member that can provide an opportunity to work at Disneyland. In fact, this is intriguing to retirees who still want to have a little magic in their lives while earning some extra dollars. Disneyworld hires around 75,000 employees. Some jobs are park greeters who greet the guests, character attendants who escort the character where they need to be, first aid station attendants who stay inside and put band-aids on kids, attraction attendants who inform guests of the best places to go, and ticket sellers selling tickets indoors. Non-cast members are subjected to the same rules and regulations as cast members.

Cast member memories of employment are often fond, despite negative press and reports. After speaking with a previous cast member of Disneyland, it was refreshing to hear her positivity toward it. All of her memories and references to her days as a cast member brought joy and wonder. Maureen Kohler (“Mo”) was an employee at Disneyland for two years, starting as a seasonal cast member advancing to a full time cast member. Mo was in the cast of the Hunchback of Notre Dame stage show as well as working in parades. She was the “topsy-turvy-tumbler” which means that she was the same character upside-down as she was right-side-up while tumbling. She also played parade costume characters, like Dale the chipmunk and Gideon the drunken cat from Pinocchio.

Mo confirmed that the way Disney decides what costume character you will portray is based on your height. And this makes sense as there are few costumes and those who play those characters are required to fit in those costumes. Five feet and under is Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse- so whatever height you are, that is the character you can play. There is some leeway, for example four inches, however if you are to play Goofy you need to be at least six feet tall and Tigger requires someone to be 5’7”.

Mo started as a part-time employee in the parades, then was promoted to almost full-time status, and once her show got more popular, she became a full-time employee. The Hunchback of Notre Dame show was a full-time show, unlike a seasonal Christmas parade, and therefore her employment received a higher status. Her show was half parade and half union. She explained that anything someone watches as a parade is non-union and stage shows that are year-round are union.

Her rehearsals for the Hunchback show had to be conducted when the park was closed so the hours required were stressful. For instance, she had to rehearse at 2:00 a.m. so she would report at 1:30 a.m. and rehearse until 6:00 a.m. while nobody was in the park in order to run the whole show while nobody was there.

She first started at minimum wage in 1996 or 1997 but then was hired after the seasonal parades as a stunt performer and was paid a bit higher than the normal performers since she was tumbling on cement. Once she went on tour, she was then able to join the union. Ultimately, the amount she was paid was not enough to support herself if that was the only thing she was doing for income. But Mo did not care, because she was working for Disney, the happiest place on earth and more important to her than making more money.

Mo explained that her treatment was great and included on-sight therapists to massage the performers due to the extreme physical nature of their roles, and in consideration of doing five twenty-five minute shows a day during the summer for five days a week. She also received other benefits like attending the park for free with guests receiving the same benefits as well.

Working at Disneyland was the best time of Mo’s life, but she continues to return to Disneyland as a patron with as much joy and love as she experienced as an employee. Mo met her husband at Disneyland, got engaged at Disneyland, and now brings her children to Disneyland to capture the piece of magic she once enjoyed as an employee but still experiences as a visitor.

After writing this paper, my perspective has been greatly altered in the sense that if I do get to have the opportunity to go back to Disneyland I would pay more attention to the cast members and how they act. I would also make sure my appreciation for their work was shown to them. When I went back my freshman year, I didn't see enough cast members to truly realize their treatment or the effect from it. I was really just there to enjoy myself. But knowing now of all the reports, both negative and positive, and though Disneyland has tough and harsh requirements, I would love to be able to work there. It seems like an experience that would challenge me while strengthening my experience in all ways. 

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Disneyland: The Happiest Place On Earth. (2021, Dec 29). Retrieved November 28, 2023 , from

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