If it weren't for the assistance of their parents, Disney World worker Amethyst Bennett said she and her husband, a Universal employee, would be unable to afford formula and diapers for their 9-month-old daughter despite both working full-time.
Bennett, 28, held a sign that read, "Full-Time Can't Buy Formula" as she took turns pushing daughter Shealyn's stroller during a Wednesday rally with a couple hundred other Disney workers, many still in their costumes from work, asking the company for higher pay.
"Being able to make magic and also provide for her would mean my entire life," said Bennett, who has worked at her "dream job" as a recreation employee with Disney since 2018 and makes $16.50 an hour.
Employees began marching a couple miles off Disney property, with the mountain for Animal Kingdom roller coaster Expedition Everest visible in the distance, to a stretch of U.S. 192 in Kissimmee Wednesday afternoon. They chanted "Disney workers need a raise" and displayed signs saying, "Magic doesn't pay the bills" and "We deserve more than [former CEO Bob] Chapek ever did!!" to locals commuting from work and tourists traveling to area restaurants and hotels.
The Service Trades Council Union and its affiliate unions represent 42,000 service workers at Disney World who have advocated for higher wages, improved health care and retirement benefits and more since the unions started renegotiating their contract with Disney on Aug. 24.
The previous agreement from 2018, which expired Oct. 1, won workers a path to a $15 minimum wage by 2021 and influenced other local hospitality companies to increase their pay.
Now, member unions are pushing for Disney to immediately raise that minimum to $18 per hour and boost the pay of workers who already make close to that amount by $3 an hour.
Supporters say Disney can afford the raises as its theme parks report a streak of record revenues amid price increases and as former top executive Chapek received a bonus in excess of $20 million earlier this year.
Disney's theme parks have been a major contributor to the company's revenue as it has recently struggled with significant losses in streaming. These financial losses contributed to Chapek's ousting last week, analysts said.
"[The company is] like a pyramid. If we are not there [at the base], it would collapse," said 28-year-old David Ramirez, who earns $15 an hour working at an Animal Kingdom attraction.
In negotiations with the unions, Disney World has proposed to gradually increase its starting wages to $20 an hour over the next five years.
"We have presented a strong and meaningful offer that far outpaces Florida minimum wage by at least $5 an hour and immediately takes starting wages for certain roles including bus drivers, housekeepers and culinary up to a minimum of $20 an hour while providing a path to $20 for all other full-time, non-tipped STCU roles during the contract term," spokeswoman Andrea Finger said in a statement Wednesday
Under this proposal, Disney said 25% of non-tipped employees would earn $20 an hour within the contract's first year. The company has also proposed other benefits during recent bargaining, like eight weeks of paid child-bonding time for full-time employees with at least a year of service and an additional 401K option.
But Disney employees say they need relief from historically high inflation and housing costs now.
Unite Here Local 737 released a report earlier this month that found the majority of hospitality staff it represents struggled to afford basic necessities making a median of $16.50 an hour, or $34,320 annually, including at Disney World.
About 69% of these workers struggled to pay their rent or mortgage each month, 62% said they had less than $100 in savings and 45% skipped meals because of the cost, the report read.
Hollywood Studios merchandise employee Nicky Wilkins said she has to borrow money from her family to support herself, even as she lives with her adult son and two other roommates and the household shares one car.
Wilkins, 39, discussed her three-hour, one-way commute by bus to Disney in the 2019 Orlando Sentinel series "Laborland," which chronicled the struggles of Orlando's low-wage workers. She said she currently makes $15 an hour.
"We're paying over $2,000 in rent. You want to give us a dollar more (annually)? The cost of living is expensive," she said Wednesday.