Very few places exist that embody the atmosphere that the Walt Disney theme parks hold. With a history that has spanned nearly 100 years, The Walt Disney Company has created hundreds of “magical moments” through films, media, and its iconic parks. But with its history of giving guests the perfect vacation, it is important to take the time to see how the company treats its cast members who create those “magical moments” and values their effort.
It has been said that the cast members are what makes the theme park. From custodial to attractions, every cast member can make a guest’s day. I was able to get a glimpse of the life of a cast member by participating in their Disney College Program, or the DCP, for six months. I had the wonderful opportunity to work as a hostess at Oga’s Cantina in Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It gave me a more in-depth view of the company, especially when it came to the various perks, work environment, and its shifting priorities.
Being a cast member brought much more stress than anticipated. Admittedly, it may have been my fault to expect less pressure from one of the most popular companies in the world, but it would have been nice to have some guidance. I cannot speak for the regular part-time or full-time employees, but for many college program participants (or CP’s) like me, it was scary and confusing to jump straight into the job. In the past, The Walt Disney Company, TWDC, has contributed more time and effort to the DCP because they understood that those cast members could be the future of the company. There were educational classes, guest speakers, and more programs and events actually run by Disney. Now, it has become more centered around whatever events the housing community decides to plan. Which still were amazing, but less centered around a future with Disney.
Disney did take the time to hire American Campus Communities to build a new apartment complex for employees, called Flamingo Crossings. It was wonderful to move into a freshly built campus with great amenities like a 24/7 gym and multiple pools. I believe this was one of the many great things that the company still does to show that they do care for their cast members and want us to have a memorable experience. What I do wish though is that Disney kept a better eye on Flamingo Crossings. The employees there were as helpful as they could be, but there were many times when it seemed like they were not as informed, especially when it came to dangerous situations and rumors going around campus. It got to a point at the end of my program where I honestly did not feel safe in the complex.
While I do believe that Disney takes advantage of the chance for cheap labor, they often take care of their cast members; and what I see as the most important reason for that is their effort into bringing in the best coordinators and leaders for each location. At Oga’s Cantina, I was lucky to have a group of coordinators that genuinely cared about me. They understood what it was like to be a lost and confused CP and took the time to understand what struggles we were going through, whether work-related or personal. Though not every location was like this; there have been many cast members that have had to deal with irresponsible leaders and coordinators that treated other cast members as disposable, and this is how many cast members have felt in recent years: disposable.
College program cast members especially felt this. After a few months into the program, the turnover rate was at 60%; more CPs were leaving than ever before. The program didn’t feel worth it anymore. While it may be different for full-time and part-time employees, many still felt mistreated in the company. The pay especially wasn’t much, especially with how high rent can be in the Orlando area. In late 2021, the hourly rate for part-timers went from $13 to $14 and the rate for full-timers went from $14-$15. CPs did not get their dollar increase until January of 2022, when their rent at Flamingo Crossings also went up. When I first got the job, $13 an hour seemed like a lot, until I realized I would be paying $215 a week at a place that I had no choice but to live in. In reality the pay could be a lot less, but I am glad that Disney is starting to increase the salary for cast members.
A huge stressor for cast members (I know it was for me) is how Disney conducts their “point system.” The point system works differently for other cast members than it does for CPs. For all other cast members, if you are given a certain number of points in a specific time you will be given a reprimand. Once given your fourth reprimand, the cast member is terminated. Luckily, with sick days you are able to combine the points into a single point, with proof of a doctor’s visit. CPs did not get that grace; we were only to combine our points given due to sick days once throughout our whole program. Not to mention that if you showed up to work sick you would also get a point. Meaning, if you’re sick more than once, you’re screwed.
This is the main reason I believe TWDC has forgotten about their cast members, specifically CPs. I was sick about three times during my program, and it was one of the most stressful situations I have endured. Trying to determine if I was feeling okay enough to push through a shift, doing everything I could to give away shifts when I was sick, and communicating to my leaders and human resources to figure out why certain points were not combined or removed. Eventually, this all became so stressful that I passed out before work, which kept me home for two days and resulted in two more points and I ended up with my first reprimand. Many other cast members were in the same situation I was in, especially with COVID still going around.
What really makes the tiring hours of work worth it is the benefits. As cast members, we had access to free admission at all four parks. That alone was absolutely insane to me. Allowing cast members to take the time to explore the parks and have a better understanding of where everything might be definitely helps with the job. There were certain questions that guests would ask me that I did not know until I went to the parks myself. Cast members also got discounts on merchandise, food, and resort reservations. While everything at Disney was already overpriced, these discounts helped plenty.
When Walt Disney first created his company, his focus was not really on the money. He wanted to create spaces where kids and adults alike could have the time of their lives. He wanted cast members to not only create the magic but feel the magic. I believe TWDC has lost track of their priorities; yes, it’s a company so it will always be about the money whether that is openly advertised or not, but that does not mean that the employees should be forgotten. Disney needs to bring back that “magic” mentality because that is what always differentiated them from any other company.