Homelessness in the Happiest Place on Earth: Disney World Workers Sleep in Motels

The theme park’s employees are paid so little they cannot afford housing in the Orlando area.

Photo: Kelly Ryerson/Getty Images

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Disney World may be the happiest place on earth, but it turns out a hotbed of income inequality is simmering around Cinderella’s castle. Despite visitors paying about $100 a pop to enter the Orlando, Fla., theme park, the employees who create such a magical experience for guests are too poor to afford permanent housing.

Many workers at Disney World, as well as the horde of service-industry businesses that surround the park, only earn Florida’s minimum wage, $8.03 an hour. According to the Associated Press, that low salary puts most apartments in surrounding Osceola County beyond the financial reach of the workers. The county doesn’t operate homeless shelters, leaving 1,216 families with no choice but to shack up in the low-budget motels located throughout the area.

“Tourists that come here...I don’t think they have a clue,” 31-year-old fast-food worker James Ortiz told the AP. Many workers like Ortiz moved to the Orlando area to work at the tourist attractions. Now they don’t make enough to afford rent, along with food, clothing, gas, and other daily necessities. 

Because families live in motel rooms for extended periods of time—or multiple families end up cramped together in a single room—motel owners have begun complaining to local law enforcement about the problem. Many are attempting through legal means to get people evicted.

Ortiz recently moved from a motel into an RV park. Tagging along with him are his parents and his five-year-old son. Too bad income inequality means Ortiz’s son won’t have the kind of enchanted memories his peers visiting the theme park go home with.

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