Disney Policies -- Then and Now
At a recent awards ceremony, Meryl Streep accused Walt Disney of being a sexist. To justify her claim she read from a 1938 rejection letter a female trainee program applicant received from him. It said, "Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that is performed entirely by young men."
Ms. Streep's comment that Walt was a sexist irritated me - a lot.
Come on Meryl. It was 1938. Women really didn't begin joining the workforce in any numbers until 1941 when World War II forced them out of the house. And when the war was over in 1945, most women returned home to take care of their families. You can't judge a man who lived in the first half of the 20th century by 21st century standards. That's just not reasonable.
For the most part, the women who did work in the early and mid-20th century held repetitive and non-decision-making jobs. They were telephone operators, secretaries, and sales clerks. Some even worked in the Ink & Paint Department of the Disney Studios - where Walt met Lillian.
Walt was a flawed man, just like the rest of us. He was a man of his generation and shared many of the same attitudes as his contemporaries. But Walt was always open to new ideas. If he hadn't been, he wouldn't have continually pushed himself and his team to think outside the box. And Walt grew and changed with the times. The Walt that sent that rejection letter in 1938 was not the same Walt that later included several women in his inner circle of Imagineers. These included Disney Legends Alice Davis, Harriet Burns, and Mary Blair. Were these women in the minority in a field dominated by men? Of course they were. But they were there nonetheless.
Television is often a good barometer of the country's current morals and principles. Walt Disney died in December 1966 so I thought I might look at a few of the sitcoms that were popular during the 1950's and 1960's to see how women were portrayed back then.
The Honeymooners (1955 - 1956) -- Alice Kramden was a housewife.
I Love Lucy (1951 - 1957) - Ricky wanted Lucy to stay home and take care of the house. And when Lucy and Ethel got jobs in the episode titled "Job Switching," they were failures and agreed that men were better suited for the workplace.
Father Knows Best (1954 - 1960) -- Margaret Anderson stayed home to take care of Betty, Bud, and Kathy.
Leave it to Beaver (1957 - 1963) - June stayed home (and wore pearls) to take care of Wally and the Beaver.
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952 - 1966) - Harriet stayed home to take care of David and Ricky. (Ozzie also stayed home as he never had any recognizable job.)
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961 - 1966) - Laura stayed home to take care of Richie. However, we did see Sally Rogers working with Rob and Buddy. But she was still assigned many of the traditional female duties within the writing team.
It wasn't until 1970 when the Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered that things began to change for women on TV. Mary was the first never-married, independent career woman as the central character. This was three years after Walt's death.
Walt wasn't a sexist. Walt was a product of his time.
Now that I have that off my chest, I thought I would look back at some of the out-of-date policies that were in place at Disneyland in the early years. Once again, by today's standards, some of them are horrifying. But Disney was a conservative company and tried to give the public what they thought the public wanted - just like most all businesses do. But in showing the negative, I also want to show the positive. I want to show you how working at the Disney parks has changed over the years. Today, Disney is often singled out as one of the top companies in the country to work for.
Disclaimer"¦ Some of what I present here is from my own, personal observations from my employment at Disneyland from 1971 to 1980. But much of what I offer here is public record.
Show is everything in a Disney park. For example, it bothered Walt greatly that the cast members' locker room at Disneyland was located behind Tomorrowland. This forced cowboys and jungle explorers to walk through the Land of the Future in order to get to their jobs. This was an incongruity and created bad show.
What follows are some of the policies that were once in place to ensure that a guest never had to experience "bad show" during their visit.
Cast member grooming policies were extremely strict. A male cast member's hair could not extend over his shirt collar in the back or be long enough to get in his eyes in the front. Hair could not touch the ears and sideburns could only extend to the middle of the ear. Facial hair was strictly forbidden. Guys could not dye their hair in any manner.
Female workers could not add highlights or streak their hair. Clear nail polish was the only color allowed. Earrings could be no more than a quarter of an inch in diameter.
Cast members could only wear one ring - and it had to be on the ring or little finger. You certainly couldn't wear it on the thumb.
Sometime around 1976, the policy on sideburns was changed. Guys were now allowed to grow them to the bottom of the ear, but no flairs or mutton-chops. Interestingly, this policy was not changed at WDW until sometime later.
Over the years, a number of cast members took Disney to court over this grooming policy, but they always lost. Disney was able to produce thousands of letters from guests stating that they loved how neat and clean all of the cast members looked. You must remember, long hair and bushy facial hair was all the rage in the 70's with the hippie movement. Guests (and juries) found the "Disney look" refreshing.
Disney still maintains a grooming policy, but things have loosened up tremendously over the years. One of the biggest changes we have seen recently revolves around facial hair. First Disney started allowing mustaches and more recently, beards.
Although Florida cast members working in food service may not wear rings for hygienic reasons, others are now allowed to wear a ring on each hand and on any finger.
Women can wear hooped earrings.
If a woman got pregnant while working at Disneyland, she was allowed to work only as long as she could fit into a standard costume. Once she started showing, she had to take an unpaid leave of absence.
Today, pregnant cast members may work as long as they are able and desire. Special costumes have been designed to promote this practice.
Cast members with any visible impairment could not have an onstage job. For example, you would never see a wheelchair-bound cast member onstage in the 1970's. If you broke an arm and required a cast, or had an eye infection and required a patch, you would not be allowed to work onstage. If management could find you a backstage job while you mended, you might be placed in some other position, but even this was definitely the exception, not the rule.
Disney is a leader at hiring those with special needs - and often placing them in guest-facing positions. It is not uncommon at all to see a cast member in a wheelchair taking tickets, directing crowds, or in any number of roles.
One of my hostess friends at the Blue Bayou Restaurant had a slight deformity on her right hand. Several of her fingers were fused together, however it was hardly noticeable. After working a summer as a hostess, it was her turn to be advanced to the position of waitress, a much better paying job. However, she was denied the promotion. She was told that her deformed hand would offend guests as she served them their food. It didn't matter that she had been handing menus to guests for a year, serving food was considered a different matter. She ultimately threatened to take Disney to court. Disney eventually backed down and promoted her.
This would never happen at a Disney park today. All positions are open to everyone. The only requirement is that an individual must be capable of doing the job.
Although Disney would never admit to this (and it would be impossible to prove), those with good looks and good builds were hired into public-facing jobs - especially into Attractions (ride operators). Those with plain looks were assigned roles backstage. Of course, there were always exceptions to this unofficial policy, but it didn't take a genius to see it was true. All you had to do is look around. This was done in the name of "show."
Once again, this type of policy would never fly at a Disney park today.
Disney has always been proactive when it comes to safety. But as times change, so do policies.
I almost put this next entry under "Show" but decided it belonged under safety.
For a long time, cast members were forbidden to eat or drink while onstage. This was considered bad show. Even on the hottest days, cast members working out on the asphalt parking lot directing cars had to wait for their break to get a drink of water.
Today, cast members are still forbidden to eat while onstage. However, many positions now allow cast members to carry a company approved water bottle on their belt so they may remain hydrated while working.
Take a look at this old parking lot tram. These were still in use when I started working at Disneyland in 1971. It's amazing that people weren't falling out of these trams left and right.
The basic tram design we see today came about sometime during my tenure at Disneyland. But recently, Disney management went a step further and added doors.
In the "old days" Disney parks made very few, if any, attempts at accommodating wheelchairs. Nobody did back then.
For example, in the Blue Bayou Restaurant, guests in wheelchairs had to be pulled up three stairs by their companions to gain access to the dining room.
Even today, we see signs of this lack of consideration. Take a look at the Liberty Tree Tavern in the Magic Kingdom. This restaurant was designed in the late sixties and opened in 1971 when mores were different. The restaurant portion of this eatery is located up two steps from the lobby. Even today, guests in wheelchairs must be brought into the restaurant through a side door or pulled up the steps.
Over at Columbia Harbour House, guests in wheelchairs wishing to eat upstairs are taken into the kitchen to use the restaurant's only elevator.
Today, Disney is a leader when it comes to ADA requirements. All new construction addresses the necessities of those with special needs and older structures are retrofitted whenever possible. Even rides that were strictly off limits to those with mobility issues have been modified to allow them to ride.
When Disney World opened, there were only two hotels, the Contemporary and Polynesian. However, there was no elevator to the monorail platform at the Contemporary. Disney management of the day didn't see a need. If someone used a wheelchair, they could stay at the Polynesian. Problem solved.
Disney added an elevator to the Contemporary monorail platform. Now, wheelchair-bound guests have the same choice when it comes to accommodations as everyone else.
When I started working at Disneyland in 1971, the park was run by men. Not as an official policy, but rather women hadn't yet begun to move into supervisory positions with any great numbers. Of the several hundred supervisors and managers attending to the day-to-day operation of Disneyland, only a handful were women - and most in entry level management positions.
In the earliest years of the park, African Americans could only work in backstage jobs or as a performer. It wasn't until 1968 that blacks were allowed into guest-facing jobs.
Women and minorities are seen at all levels in the Disney Corporation. Here are three examples out of many:
Meg Crofton is President of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Operations U.S. and France.
Aylwin B. Lewis is one of the members of the Disney Board of Directors.
George A. Kalogridis, an openly gay man, is President over the Walt Disney World Resort.
In the 1970's, Disneyland had two ethnic restaurants, the Tahitian Terrace (full service) and Casa de Fritos (counter service). Almost all of the cast members working at the Tahitian Terrace were of Polynesian decent and almost all of the cast members working at Casa de Fritos were of Latin American decent. This hiring practice was defended in the name of theming. Disney management backed this policy by saying they were casting a role in a show. It would not be realistic to have a Mexican serving Polynesian food or a Hawaiian serving tacos.
Once again, all roles at Disney Parks are open to all cast members. The exception is Epcot's World Showcase. As these pavilions were set up to be cultural exchange areas, the majority of the cast members working here are either from the country represented or have spent a significant amount of time in that country and are extremely knowledgeable of that nation.
You might be asking yourself, "So what's the difference between World Showcase and the Tahitian Terrace and Casa de Fritos?"
The cast members working at the Tahitian Terrace and Casa de Fritos only looked Polynesian or Latin American. In most cases, they had well established American roots and knew little about the foreign lands they were supposedly representing.
In the 1970's, only women could wait on tables in the full-service restaurants (the Blue Bayou, Tahitian Terrace, and Club 33). Men were not allowed to fill this role. It took a Club 33 busboy to change this policy. He took Disneyland to court on a discrimination charge and won the right to become a server. Still, it was several more years before Disney opened up this position to males in the Blue Bayou and Tahitian Terrace.
As I keep saying, today, all roles are open to all cast members.
Another area of sex discrimination took place on the Jungle Cruise and the Storybook Land Canal Boats attractions. It was reasoned that only a man could skipper a boat up the Congo and only a woman ("girl" in those days) could tell guests all about the fairytale homes found in Fantasyland.
In addition, the Tour Guide position was exclusively female.
I really don't know exactly when these practices were abolished, but eventually both of these attractions and the Tour Guide position were opened to both sexes.
In the early 60's, demands on Walt's time were ever increasing and he needed someone "official" to represent him when he was unavailable. Thus, the Disneyland Ambassador Program began in 1965. The chosen ambassador would host dignitaries and oversee the opening of new attractions in Walt's absence - along with a hundred other duties.
A new ambassador was selected each year. Only unmarried females were eligible for the position and she had to sign a contract stating that she would not marry during her term. Applicants went through rigorous interviews and eventually the field was narrowed down to five contenders - usually all from the Tour Guide Department. These finalists would be listed in the company newspaper, The Disneyland Line. In the next week or so, the judges would make their final selection and a winner was announced.
While I was working at Disneyland, male cast members began grumbling about this female-only position. Eventually, Disneyland opened up the ambassador position to both sexes. For a number of years afterwards, a male would make it into the final five, but somehow was never selected. It wasn't until 1995, when three ambassadors were selected to represent Disneyland instead of just one that a male was finally chosen along with two females.
Sexism is no longer a problem. In fact, in 2007, two men were selected as ambassadors of the WDW Resort (Lowell A. Doringo and Michael Kelley). Women were left completely out in the cold that year. In addition, ambassadors can now be married.
Disney also discriminated when it came to a person's size. Although I don't have the actual statistics, people who were too tall, too short, or too big could not be hired into the day-to-day jobs at Disneyland as there were no costumes available for them.
My high school girlfriend and I applied for a job at Disneyland at the same time. I was hired (at 5'10"), but she was told she was too short (at 5'3") as Disney didn't make a costume in her size.
You guessed it; a person's size isn't a problem anymore.
By the way, twenty years later, my then girlfriend reapplied and received a nice part-time job in merchandising at Disneyland.
Although I wouldn't exactly call this next entry discrimination, it certainly falls into the sexist category.
When the Club 33 opened, the vast majority of the members were local businessmen. In the early years, the restaurant was frequented primarily by these gentlemen, their guests, and the male executives of the Disney Company. To appeal to the male libido, the waitress costume was that of a stereotypical French maid. Although not racy by today's standards, it was somewhat risquΓ© in the 1970's - especially for Disneyland.
This costume's design also dictated that a rubenesque woman could not be a server at the Club 33. Not to mention, the older a woman grew, the more inappropriate the costume became.
When men began waiting tables at the Club 33, they were costumed in a tuxedo-type outfit. Still, the women remained in this sexist getup.
Although I don't have a picture, the women servers at the Club 33 today are dressed in a far more dignified costume.
Since I worked in Food Service at Disneyland, these are the stories I can tell. I'm sure those working Attractions and Merchandising would have their own tales as well.
Disneyland had only one executive chef who oversaw all of the park's restaurants and was responsible for most of the menus.
New Orleans Square sits atop a giant basement. Within this basement is a large kitchen designed to serve five satellite kitchens and restaurants (Blue Bayou, French Market, CrΓ©ole CafΓ©, Club 33, and an employee's cafeteria). Knowing that this new complex would be serving thousands of meals each day, Disney hired retired army cooks to man the "Main Kitchen." Management figured "who better" than a military man to feed the masses.
These army guys were great, hard-working souls that did a fantastic job, but none of them had any real, formal culinary training. They had all learned their craft from other army personnel while in the service. Most of these guys worked the day shift and would leave the premises in the late afternoon. In the evening, college kids took over.
In the early years, the New Orleans Square restaurants offered decent, somewhat authentic Southern food. Far above anything that had ever been seen in a theme park before. However, by the mid 1970's, the menus had changed significantly. Due to a lack of truly professional chefs and budget cuts, many of the once cooked-on-premises items had been replaced with off-the-shelf entrees that only required thawing and heating. By the time I transferred to the Club 33 in 1977, the Blue Bayou, the flagship restaurant of Disneyland, was serving instant mashed potatoes. The restaurant was no better than a coffee shop in the quality of food that it offered.
Today, all Disney restaurants have professionally trained chefs on hand or nearby. And although the topic of food is somewhat subjective, I can assure you, what is offered today at Disney's full-service restaurants is a far cry from what it was in the late 1970's.
If you had a food allergy in the mid 70's, you were pretty much out of luck. No chef was available to personally speak with you and cook you a special meal. There certainly were no recipes on hand for us to check ingredients. A vegetarian plate at the Blue Bayou consisted of a scoop of corn, green beans, rice, instant mashed potatoes, and a lettuce leaf with a scoop of cottage cheese. Hardly a healthy offering.
If you have a food allergy, the restaurant's chef will personally come to your table to discuss your needs. Even counter-service restaurants will work with you to see that your requirements are met. Just ask.
In addition, all restaurants offer healthy options.
I would like to say, that in spite of some of the practices that were in place while I worked at Disneyland, overall I had a wonderful experience working there. I wouldn't trade my time at the Blue Bayou and Club 33 for anything.
Once again, please remember, these eyebrow-raising policies and incidents were a reflection of the times and Disney's attempt to theme things accordingly. I think you can see from my examples, things have changed for the better.
Is the Disney Company perfect today? Nope. And neither is any other company. They are all run by imperfect humans. Does Disney still have out-of-date practices? Probably. I'm sure some cast members have their complaints. But in numerous surveys and studies, Disney is constantly ranked among the top U.S. employers.
So Meryl, you can call Walt a sexist if you want. But then you would also have to call "The Happiest Place on Earth" a den of inequity. Personally, I don't buy it.