The Florida Project, Labor Strife, and Life on the Margins of Disney World

Moonee and Jancey watch a rainbow over The Magic Castle in Kissimmee in The Florida Project
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Relocation, Media Industries, and City Branding.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

When Walt Disney was planning his second theme park in Orlando—a supplement to Disneyland in Anaheim—a key objective was to separate the park from the surrounding urban space. One Disney officer told Life Magazine, “At Anaheim we lost control of the environment.” Disney purchased over 27,000 acres of land near Orlando, compared to the 200-acre Disneyland park in Anaheim, so that park goers would focus on the resort rather than the periphery. Along with amassing land, Disney established its own corporate-run political sphere to supervise the resort and its public services, effectively disengaging itself from the nearby Orlando-Kissimmee area. Disney incorporated two small towns in the 1960s, Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, enabling the company to administer its own civic services such as water, building codes, fire and emergency medical services, power, and road maintenance. Residency is tightly controlled to support Disney’s corporate interests. The only residents of the two towns, a combined population of fifty-seven in the 2010 census, are employees and their immediate families handpicked by Disney.

By offering residency as a benefit of loyal company service, Disney is able to bypass the town as a functioning political sphere. While the residents elect officials, including the mayor and city council members, author David Koenig contends, “If they didn’t vote Disney’s way you can be sure they wouldn’t be Disney employees or living on Disney property much longer.” As with Golden Oak, the proximity to the parks (and the ability to watch the nightly Magic Kingdom fireworks from a gated lakefront area) is hailed by residents as one the most significant benefits of living in these towns. Yet, this comes at the cost of the perpetual threat of unemployment or eviction if residents choose to vote against Disney’s interests on public service issues. 

The inequitable effects of Disney’s land usurpation and sequestering are highlighted in narratives like Sean Baker’s acclaimed 2017 film The Florida Project (named after Disney’s early alias for the Orlando theme-park). The movie explores life on the spatial and economic margins of Walt Disney World. It is set in The Magic Castle, an actual rundown motel in Kissimmee that caters to the borderline-homeless, including the unemployed single mother Halley and her six-year old daughter Moonee. Baker described the movie as exploring “the juxtaposition of having kids growing up right outside ‘the happiest place on earth.’” Characters in The Florida Project try to approximate some of the same tourist experiences that Disney publicizes in the Golden Oak promotional films, highlighting the contrast between the two communities that are just seven miles apart. For instance, Golden Oak residents have access to exclusive park events such as a guided, private safari at Animal Kingdom Park and can watch the nightly park fireworks shows from their backyards. In The Florida Project, Halley throws a birthday party for Moonee’s friend Jancey, trekking to a spot closer to the park’s fireworks and Moonee later takes Jancey on what she calls a “safari,” an overgrown field of docile cows. The Florida Project’s marginal setting is a material effect of the Disney Company’s urban planning designs and political control. Filtered through the setting of the film, the same experiences promoted by Disney to potential buyers of Golden Oak homes become a marker of the park’s metaphorical separation from the surrounding urban environment.

The Florida Project trailer

While The Florida Project offers an alternative view of the precarity of everyday life in Disney World’s peripheral urban areas, recent labor strife at the company’s domestic theme parks highlights the increasingly precarious economic positions of its employees. This precariousness challenges the narrative of the Golden Oak promotional videos that blur the lines between worker and owner. Just this past week, print and television outlets including CNN, Fortune, Bloomberg, and WFTV Orlando (the city’s ABC affiliate) have run stories about the increasing pressure that Disney workers in Anaheim and Orlando are placing on the company’s theme park division to offer a living wage. Disney and labor unions have been negotiating for wage increases for more than seven months, making apparent Golden Oak employees’ irreconcilable roles as both workers and parts of residents’ families.

Disney theme-park employees stage a protest in Orlando

Disney’s hardline negotiating tactics have been further foregrounded after unions representing about 35,000 Orlando and Anaheim park workers filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board over Disney’s withholding of a promised bonus while negotiations are underway. In late January, after the passage of tax cuts, Disney announced that it would pay over 125,000 employees a one-time cash bonus of $1,000 and invest $50 million into education programs for employees. (The Unite Here union that represents some Disney workers in Orlando estimates that Disney will save $2 billion annually from the tax cuts.) Disney’s publicity for Golden Oak not only projects and idealized image of labor, but also serves to obscure a similar instability of labor that Theo discussed in relation to the Montreal digital games industry.

The renewed attention to labor issues comes at a time when the company’s theme park division is its most profitable. Disney is investing billions in developments like Golden Oak, park expansions, and upgrades to attractions in the U.S. and Europe. This profitability is the result of a new corporate strategy that prioritizes higher spending guests over total attendance. The Parks & Resorts segment was the only segment to post a profit for fiscal year 2017 due in part to the increase in average amount spent per guest. Even when park attendance decreased or the company’s costs grew (due to factors such as increases in marketing or labor and employee benefits), by targeting high-spending guests the theme park division remained profitable as the rest of the company struggled.

The Golden Oak residents who can afford the minimum $1.5 million purchase price for a home on the Disney grounds (along with the $20,000 annual fees) represent the ideal Disney consumer-fan within this new corporate strategy. Yet, this strategy risks further expanding the disconnect between park goers and both workers and residents of the surrounding urban area. Films like The Florida Project and news coverage of Disney’s labor negotiations offer valuable entryways to re-interrogate how media companies like Disney impact their surrounding urban areas while bypassing the urban realm as political sphere wherever economically expedient. 

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