The star-studded D23 event was a potent reminder that this is Walt Disney's world... and we all just live in it. Founded by its namesake as a simple animation studio nearly ninety years ago, the company has since grown into a global multi-media conglomerate that dominates the pop culture discourse and often dictates the way the business of Hollywood is run. And few people understand the power of — and passion for — the Mouse House better than Abigail Disney, the grandniece of Walt Disney and granddaughter of the studio's co-founder, Roy O. Disney.
"Whenever I give someone my credit card and they see my last name, I experience that passion for Disney," the 62-year-old filmmaker and philanthropist tells Yahoo Entertainment when asked about witnessing the outpouring of fan affection at D23. "I think the online culture has only amped that up and given people more of an intensity than they used to have. It's not how I am, but I understand that Disney means a lot to people."
That name and what it represents understandably means a lot to Disney as well, which is why she's emerged as one of the Walt Disney Company's most prominent critics. A longtime champion for economic equality, Disney raised eyebrows in 2019 when she posted a lengthy Twitter thread that called the financial compensation for then-CEO, Bob Iger, "insane."
Disney has since continued to hammer home the monetary disconnect between the company's executive class and its everyday workers, an argument that forms the basis for her new documentary, The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales. Co-directed by Disney and Kathleen Hughes, the movie — which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and arrives on VOD on Sept. 23 — profiles some of the employees who work at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., and are having trouble staying financially afloat even as the theme parks see record profits.
Watch a scene from The American Dream below
"Now is the right time to release this documentary, because during the pandemic we saw billionaires get richer and nothing being done for essential workers," Disney says. "We did not match our language with action. Americans see Disneyland as this treasure and the people who work there are really important to them. It makes people miserable to think that Cinderella is sleeping in her car! And that's an important feeling to pay attention to, because it's your conscience speaking."
Just like Jiminy Cricket, though, Disney has discovered that being other people's conscience also makes her a target for their ire. As seen in The American Dream, her criticisms of executive pay and calls for higher taxes on corporations were often met with dismissals and snide commentary from those within the financial sector, as well as the financial news media. But they also trickled down to ordinary people on Twitter, who seemed surprisingly eager to stand up for CEOs rather than workers. Disney and Hughes both say that attitude is reflective of how corporate tycoons have been elevated to celebrities since the "Greed is good" days of the ’80s.
"There's been several decades of building toward that kind of worship," Disney notes. "We are worshiping them for making money, both for investors, but also for themselves. They have cultivated this idea that no one else can do the job they do — that they are so uniquely talented and so special that nobody can replace them. I'm sorry, but I don't buy that."
"Remember [former General Electric CEO] Jack Welch in the ’80s and ’90s?" Hughes says. "He became a hero for laying thousands of people and destroying communities. Somehow he became admired for being 'tough' enough for doing what had to be done and enriching the corporation. This was a time when we we all became enamored with of the notion that greed was good, and greed was going to make us all rich."
Many American workers are still paying — some quite literally — for that attitude today. The Disneyland cast members profiled in The American Dream come from a variety of backgrounds, from a husband and wife trying to provide for their children to a single woman seeking stable housing. But all of them share the same story of living on stretched budgets and limited resources stemming from paychecks that haven't risen to meet today's cost of living.
Hughes says that some of the film's subjects — several of whom are no longer working at Disneyland — were initially "nervous" about participating in the documentary, but never experienced any intimidation from the company. "They felt it was important to speak out, and swallowed their fears. I think the fact that they do have a union gave them comfort." Disney adds that she and Hughes made overtures to Disney World employees in Orlando, but received a warier response. "That's a statement to how weak unions are in Florida," she says, noting that Florida is a right-to-work state where fewer Disney employees are unionized.
As The American Dream reminds us, Walt Disney himself was no fan of unions. In 1941, Disney animators launched a five-week strike until the studio agreed to recognize the Screen Cartoonist's Guild. And Abigail Disney believes that her granduncle and grandfather would stand by those beliefs today. "They were both very, very, very politically conservative," she admits, while also suggesting that Roy Disney, at least, would be light years removed from an executive like Jack Welch. "He was the warmest, most genuine man you would ever be lucky to know. As a matter of decency, I just don't see him operating the way any corporation today operates — I just don't see it."
For the record, Disney also thinks that her relatives would also have embraced the push for diversity that's happening in the studio's modern fare. D23 audiences were treated to early footage from live-action versions of The Little Mermaid and Snow White, starring Halle Bailey and Rachel Zegler as the respective Disney Princesses. Images and footage that later appeared online were predictably received with the usual griping from a small, but vocal group upset that traditionally white characters were being portrayed by performers of color — a reaction that makes Disney shake her head.
"I mean, it's all made up people!" she says, laughing. "I don't understand why it's controversial. I live in New York City and the world to me looks like everything and everyone all the time, and I love that. That makes me feel alive. I don't want to live in a world where everybody's just boring and white. My grandfather and granduncle were men of their time, and that wasn't always a good thing. But they were also creatives, and they understood the value of a vibrant, changing and eclectic culture."
In the years since Disney first took her case against the modern-day Walt Disney Company public, the corporation has issued statements deflecting her criticisms, pointing to employee benefits like career development programs and health insurance. Bob Iger himself avoided publicly acknowledging her comments, and that policy has continued under his successor, Bob Chapek, who was front and center at D23. Disney says that she hasn't had any direct contact with Chapek and doesn't expect to anytime soon.
"They're very different men," she says of the two CEOs. "Let's give [Chapek] some more time. I haven't reached out, because I'm just assuming they don't want to talk to me. We'll see as time goes on."
At the same time, being a thorn in the company's side has seemed to effect change. Disney says that minimum wage rates have notably risen in the years since she and Hughes began interviewing Disneyland workers. "When we started talking to folks in 2018, they were at about $11.25 an hour, and then it went to $15 because they fought really hard," she says. "After more fighting it got to $18.50, and one hotel in Anaheim just agreed to a contract at $23.50 an hour. The living wage in Anaheim is $24, so that's a big change. It would be nice if we could declare a tiny victory, but the credit really goes to the unions and the workers who were brave enough to speak up."
Disney plans to continue speaking up, both through films like The American Dream and on social media. Recently, she tagged Disney in an angry Twitter post after it was revealed that Disney+ ads were running during a podcast hosted by right-wing political figure, Steve Bannon.
"I'm horrified," she says of that news. "I'll cut them some slack: you buy ads in bundles and somebody else goes out and actually chooses a specific [program]. But it doesn't take an enormous amount of foresight to say things like: 'No Nazis, no insurrectionists.' Taking the politics out of it, in terms of the divisiveness and ugliness, you don't want to do that to the [Disney] brand. Obviously, that's not a CEO decision, but it is a leadership problem."
Disney is also critical of the way the company's leaders have dealt with Florida's Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, a major proponent of the state's controversial "Don't Say Gay" bill. After initially declining to speak out against the legislation, Chapek reversed course following an employee outcry, leading DeSantis in turn to threaten to revoke the company's special tax district in Orlando that allows for private services including district-specific police and fire departments. Both sides have since quieted their rhetoric, which suggests to Disney that conversations are now continuing behind-the-scenes.
"There's a reason it went quiet: because everybody recognized that nobody was winning the argument," she explains. "The special tax district was the work of my grandfather, who was a brilliant and crafty man, and really believed in making sure the government accommodated him. I wish he hadn't done that, because I don't think a private corporation should have its own police force. I think that's a bad idea! So hard questions need to be asked about that."
"But what Ron DeSantis did was say, 'I am going to capriciously enforce a law because I disagree with your political position,'" Disney continues. "This sounds like a hysterical word to use, but that's nothing short of fascism. That is how fascist regimes rule and get the co-operation of highly powerful, wealthy people. It's not that [DeSantis] saw that Disney was winning — he achieved what he wanted to achieve, which was to go after the most powerful corporation in his state in order to send a message to every other corporation in his state."
Looking forward to the future, Disney feels that the societal pendulum might be swinging away from corporations and back to the power of the people. In taking The American Dream around the country for pre-release screenings, she's been struck by the way the stories of the Disney employees interviewed in the film resonate with audiences.
"I think people have had enough of the idea that it's right for one person to take home $66 million while other people can afford to put food on the table," she says. "I keep saying that we have structured an economy as though we've been architects building a building and we forgot that people need to live in it. We need to go back to the foundations and rebuild. There was to be a way to rethink the nature of a company. You cannot just reward ownership — you have to reward work."
The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales is currently playing in limited theatrical release and premieres Sept. 23 on VOD