Workers who help bring Disneyland’s beloved characters to life — including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Cinderella — are looking to unionize.
Labor organizers announced the campaign Tuesday, saying performers want better safety conditions and scheduling policies to help them keep the magic alive for visitors.
While most of the more than 35,000 workers at the Disneyland Resort in Southern California already have labor unions, about 1,700 performers in parades, character actors and support staff do not.
“This isn't one of those situations where we're out making the employer the bad guy,” said Kate Shindle, president of Actors' Equity Association, which would represent the performers. “It is uniquely important Disney remains a place that people view as magical, and I think that (unionizing) will improve that across the board.”
Union membership has been on a decades-long decline in the United States, but organizations have seen growing public support in recent years amid high-profile contract negotiations involving Hollywood studios and Las Vegas hotels. The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that protects workers’ right to organize, reported more than 2,500 filings for union representation during the 2023 fiscal year, the highest number in eight years.
Disney operates two theme parks — Disneyland and Disney California Adventure — and a shopping and entertainment area called Downtown Disney in Anaheim, California. Disneyland, the company’s oldest park, was the second-most visited theme park worldwide in 2022 with 16.8 million people coming through the gates, according to a report by the Themed Entertainment Association and AECOM.
Union cards were circulated starting last week to promote forming a labor union under the Actors’ Equity Association, which traditionally represents actors and stage managers. The group already represents theatrical performers at Walt Disney Co.'s Florida theme parks, organizers told The Associated Press.
Actors' Equity officials declined to say how many cards were returned but said they hoped to collect them from more than half the performers, which would let them ask Disney to voluntarily recognize the union rather having to seek a vote through the National Labor Relations Board. They expect the process will take weeks.
Disneyland officials said in a statement that they believe cast members deserve the right to a confidential vote.
Those who want to form the union, which they are calling “Magic United,” are seeking to address safety issues in costuming, such as keeping items clean and using appropriate fabrics for high-intensity dancing. They also want more stable scheduling. The group began organizing over health and safety concerns that arose when the park started allowing visitors to interact closely with characters again after the pandemic shutdown, Shindle said.
Some performers are also concerned about being asked to wear tights and make-up that don’t match their skin tones, erratic and unpredictable staffing and fair pay. Still, they said they relish working at the parks, where they play a unique role in creating the Disney experience, union officials said.
“We have to consistently be living and breathing the Disney brand or else the product suffers,” said Logan Benedict, a performer and union negotiator at Disney World in Florida, who has been supporting the organizing effort in California. “It’s vital that Disney takes care of their frontline workers.”
The union has advised California workers not to speak on the record about unionizing, said David Levy, an Actors’ Equity spokesperson.
In California, Disney’s cleaning crews, food service workers, pyrotechnic specialists and security staff are already unionized. The company has faced allegations in recent years of not paying workers enough to live in Southern California, despite Disney raking in profits. Wage issues have even wound up in the courts.
Last week, Disney reported stronger-than-expected earnings for the last three months of 2023, boosted by cost cuts and growing revenue from theme parks.
The effort to organize performers in the character and parade departments in California comes more than 40 years after those who play Mickey, Goofy and Donald Duck at Disney World in Florida were organized in the early 1980s by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a union traditionally known to represent transportation workers.
At that time, the Florida performers complained about filthy costumes and abuse from guests, such as children who would kick the shins of Disney villains like Captain Hook or others who grabbed the chests of Mickey Mouse performers to see if they were a male or female.
Taxin reported from Santa Ana, California. Associated Press writer Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida, also contributed to this report.