UPDATE: Want to know how much Disney, Universal and Sea World employees make in Orlando as well as benefits? CLICK HERE!!!
Walt Disney World unionized cast members voted “YES” on Friday, Aug. 1 to a contract that will cover their benefits, pay and other working conditions for the next five years. What you will be reading in most big headlines is something to the effect of “Disney workers vote to increase starting pay to $10 an hour.” Not only is that slightly inaccurate, it only tells a tiny portion of the story.
In reality, the new rate for employees just starting with Walt Disney World in most entry level positions will be paid $9 per hour. That’s a little over a buck more than Florida’s current minimum wage of $7.93. On May 24, 2015 the starting rate will be bumped to $9.50 an hour and as of July 31st, 2016, the wage increase will then reach the $10 an hour starting minimum, a full two years after this column has been posted.
For those unfamiliar, Central Florida’s living expenses are on the rise. According to the living wage calculator (a great website on calculating living expenses in a particular city), a full-time employee of any job working 40 hours a week looking to support just themselves in Orange County, Florida should be making $10.57 an hour. Granted, the website takes in average living expenses and those all vary from person to person. Maybe you have a car payment… maybe that’s covered… maybe you have college loans… maybe not. The point is, Disney World’s new contract doesn’t cover what is considered a “living wage” in Central Florida and won’t for the next five years if you’re just starting out. Now, what if you’ve put your time in with the company? Raises are seniority based and rather than getting pay bumps based on performance, unionized cast members get raises based on the anniversary date of when they were hired. Once you reach a certain point, however, unionized employees become “topped out,” meaning they hit a ceiling of what they can make. For example, before the recent contract, topped out employees working attractions made $13.57 an hour.
Now, an attractions employee of Walt Disney World who has put in, for sake of argument, 40 years with the company (yes, they exist, I have met many) after this contract will make $14.07 an hour (with additional $.50 per hour wage increases per year over the next three years). More than a living wage in Central Florida, to be sure, but that’s assuming the employee doesn’t have any children or anyone depending on them.
Many analysts believe that Disney is simply getting ahead of the current push to increase the minimum wage in the United States. Assuming this happens, by the time the actual $10 an hour national wage takes effect, Disney will simply be fairly close to the new minimum anyway. In addition, most of Disney’s unions who voted today were in favor of the increases, stating it was a huge victory for Cast Members.
Recently, I sent out a notice on my Theme Park University Twitter and Facebook feeds to ask former and current theme park employees to privately chat with me about their wages working in a theme park and their thoughts on their rate of pay. Most were employees of Walt Disney World and some of their answers might surprise you.
For example, a former Guest Relations Cast Member wrote in and said, “I was paid $10.35 when I left as a full time CM. I believe a more appropriate starting pay for all GR Cast would have been around $15 per hour. I do know a veteran CM of 20 years (15 of those in GR) was being paid a little over $14. However, GR roles do not require any special outside training, all the training is done by the company. I believe a college degree isn’t even required, only a HS or GED diploma. Therefore, one could argue that it isn’t a skilled job because the training is given to you by the company and a $10 wage is more than fair. But, you could also argue that the service industry, particularly those in GR, front desk, serving or concierge roles, do not necessarily require a certain set of skills, but an amicable personality to be successful in the job, which is something that can’t necessarily be trained.”
Keep in mind, pay isn’t the only factor in a theme park job at Walt Disney World. There are other perks and benefits to the job like free admission, tickets for friends and family and discounts. A former College Program recruit who worked custodial said, “I absolutely loved (x100000) the time I had there, although I was working minimum wage, because obviously I’m at the most magical place on Earth and getting in for free on my days off, with mad discounts on dining, hotel and merch to boot. Posh living accommodations and free transportation, plus free classes about Guest Service were also provided….” “I often worked hours anywhere from 3 p.m. to 4 a.m. (I worked MK with EMH [Extra Magic Hours] very, very often). I would often work upwards of 60 hours a week during busy times such as summer or holidays. I received holiday and OT pay, but do not remember how much, because really, I was just thrilled with going to the parks for free ALL THE TIME. Many of my friends who have stayed on there still just go and go and go to the parks on their days off.”
A common misconception of guests who visit Orlando theme parks is that they assume employees must be paid a higher hourly wage than other entry level jobs because of how expensive the ticket prices are. One cast member explained, “Guests assume I make close to $20 an hour. I am often asked this question and always first asked the guests what they felt I was paid. I would say 90% always guessed I am paid higher than I am, half thinking I was close to that $20 mark and the other half closer to $15, around 5% will guess near my wage and the rest have no clue. When it came to other front line employees (merch, F&B, Ops) they again guessed it was higher than it was, but the margin between reality and their guess was much smaller. For example, they would guess an Ops CM might make around $9-10 an hour, as opposed to believing I made around $20 but in reality only made $10. I also wouldn’t say they assumed I was paid highly because the ticket costs were so high, but they assumed I was well paid because the company is seen in such a positive and infallible light. Disney, of course, must be the ideal company to work for, just like their movies.” Granted, this debate over wages has been a hot button topic over the last year with several fast food chain workers picketing in cities across the country. As anyone will attest, a job is far more than wages. It’s about benefits, perks and even working conditions. I asked everyone who responded to me that if they could change anything about their time working in a theme park, what would it be? I assumed wages would be the natural answer, however, every single one responded with virtually the same answer….
“In custodial, management was really hit or miss on acknowledging excellent service. We were expected to do a lot more than just empty trash and clean toilets, but this customer service focus was really hit or miss. The managers really expected a lot out of us younger people but not much out of the older or PT or FT workers.”
“If I could change one thing during my time as a theme park employee it would be to have a better management team. I think the biggest shock to me when I first entered the company was how incompetent and uncaring the management team first area was. I can think of only 2 or 3 managers during my first few months of my time with the company who even remotely showed any concern or interest in me. Again and again as years rolled by and I moved around, I saw the same poor management practices, from the majority of managers, and underlying disinterest with the cast. I really felt that management needed to do a better job of expressing a concern for their cast and in particular talking to them as human beings and trying to understand them, their concerns and wishes, rather than just show a feigning interest.” The reason why Disney, Universal, Six Flags and Sea World can pay their employees just a hair over minimum wage is because there are enough people willing to work that kind of job for that kind of money. Odds are, if you’re a fan of theme parks, you know how hard these employees work and certain interactions with the staff can make or break your experience. How much money you pay to get in, the company’s stock price and even how much the CEO makes has nothing to do with how entry level employees are paid.
So what are your thoughts? Do you think Disney World employees got a good deal on their new contract? As a guest, do you think Disney pays their Cast Members a fair wage and if not, does it have any effect on your travel plans or the level of service you expect when visiting Walt Disney World? Guaranteed, we will be discussing this topic again on Theme Park University.