Disney’s Affordable Housing Plan Is Self-Interest, Not Socialism

Conservatives are convinced that Disney is trying to implement a radical left agenda. But even with its altruistic-seeming new housing development for workers, the company is just looking out for the bottom line.

The Cinderella Castle in Disney World in Orlando, Florida. (Wally Gobetz / Flickr)

Leftists have sprinkled magic fairy dust on Disney and turned it Marxist. That’s the message currently filtering through conservative media, anyway. To hear conservative commentator Mark Levin tell it, “The Magic Kingdom is now a woke asylum.”

If you were to take these spurious claims at face value, perhaps the company’s recent decision to build 1,300 units of affordable housing in the Orlando area is a logical next step. “We are invested in working together with our community to solve complex issues,” said Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World Resort. “The lack of affordable housing is affecting many people across our country, including right here in Central Florida.”

Solving issues for workers! What’s next for the radical left? Will Donald Duck expropriate Cinderella’s castle? Will Mr Toad face the guillotine? Will Disney soon roll out Mr Marx’s Wild Ride?

Hardly. The truth is that Disney’s new commitment to expanding housing options for its workers is a sign of the company’s self-interest, not an inclination to socialism.

Rising Costs in the House of Mouse

It’s ironic that Main Street USA is still a popular attraction at Disney theme parks.

The simulacrum of century-old downtowns reflects a rose-tinted nostalgia for a time when urban neighborhoods were denser, friendlier, and less choked with cars. What Disney won’t say is that part of the reason that old-timey barbers and shop clerks and firemen and other workers had a chance to thrive together was cheaper housing.

In 1920, you could rent an apartment in New York City for $60 a month, or less than the cost of a day pass at Disney World today, and likely enjoy a short commute to work. Even when adjusted for inflation, that’s still only $850 a month today.

That’s reasonable when compared to the exorbitant prices that those who cosplay-for-pay at Main Street USA have to cough up to live near Disney World. The average rent for an apartment in Orlando in 2022 is $1,820 — up about 40 percent from the previous year.

It’s great that Disney World employees’ minimum wage got bumped from $10 to $15 an hour starting last October (thanks to the efforts of employee unions and political pressure from Bernie Sanders), but the jump in housing costs along with rising inflation in other sectors of the economy keeps pushing workers into financial precarity and into the far-flung edges of town.

For Disney “cast members” to live in a two-bedroom apartment near work (in the 32801 zip code) would require a nearly $30-an-hour wage, according to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s double the amount that a vast majority of the resort’s 77,000 workers make. In a tight labor market, Disney has had a tough time hiring enough bus drivers, servers, custodial staff, and others to keep the resort running properly.

It’s small wonder then that Disney just announced plans to designate eighty acres of land in Orange County (which includes Orlando) for the construction of 1,300 housing units. Without these essential workers, the magic is gone from the Magic Kingdom, and Disney couldn’t justify the $6,000 it costs for a family of four for an average five-day stay.

In doing so, Disney is following the lead of companies in other upscale tourist destinations where rising rents outpace growth in wages — from Dolly Parton’s theme park Dollywood to small restaurateurs in Door County, Wisconsin. Disney World’s neighbor Universal Parks & Resorts says it has also pledged twenty acres of land in Orlando to be used for one thousand units of affordable and “mixed-income” housing.

Disney would have you believe their decision to build affordable housing reflects the company’s dearly held values. “We’re lending a hand to make a real and meaningful impact in our community by tapping into the best of our company’s strengths,” reads a quote from their press release.

But to believe that you’d have to be as gullible as Snow White singing to the doves as the Evil Queen plots her demise.

At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2020, Disney axed more than 32,000 of its lowest-wage workers. A few months later, in March 2021, the company’s stock hit a new all-time high of $203 a share, and CEO Bob Chapek ended up doubling his earnings to $32 million last year.

Sorry, Fox and Friends, but Disney still believes in good ol’ fashioned capitalism. And that leafy new development it wants to build is little more than a fresh spin on an old feature of American life not depicted on Main Street USA: the company town.