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Not the happiest place on Earth

Disney's California Adventure theme park

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KAI RYSSDAL: If your vacation plans this summer include a trip to a theme park, take a second between rides to have a look at the people who work there. It's their job to make you happy, so you might not pick up on any discontent they might be feeling. At the granddaddy of American theme parks, though, some workers are feeling down. Because Disney's not making them welcome in the company's own neighborhood. Jordan Davis reports.


Jordan Davis: Thirteen-year-old Damian loves playing trumpet. He practices for hours a day. Sometimes, though, his older brother wants some quiet time.

DAMIAN: He tells me to not play that much. And my mom, she tells me to play softly.

They'd love to tell him to go to his room. But he doesn't have one. The Gomez family — who asked that we not use their real name — lives in a one-bedroom apartment. Mom and dad in the bedroom. The teenage brothers on a bunk bed in the living room.

And there's a pair of cockatiels, too.

DAVIS: Are there other places where you can practice?

DAMIAN: Um. Like, one time in the closet.

JORDAN: You practiced in the closet before?

DAMIAN: Yeah. My parents were kind of sleeping and my dad, like, he was working and stuff. So I had to play in there.

In high-priced Orange County, lots of people are priced out of suitable apartments. By some measures, you need to make $25 an hour to afford a two-bedroom in Anaheim. Damian Gomez's dad, Miguel, makes far less busing tables at the Disneyland resort.

MIGUEL [interpreter]: I would like to live in a house with three bedrooms and a yard so my kids can be more comfortable. So we can feel like we have enough money. But with what you make at Disneyland, sometimes I don't even have enough money to pay rent. So I feel very frustrated.

Miguel Gomez is even more frustrated by Disney. A developer called Sun Cal wants to build 2,000 apartment units near Disneyland — 250 of them reserved for lower-income families like the Gomez's. Disney is pushing a ballot measure opposing it. It's reasoning goes like this: If people are living in the resort district, the atmosphere there will be, well, less like a vacation. And that might be bad for business.

Anaheim and Disney have spent a lot of money spiffing up what used to be kind of a seedy area. Visitors sporting their mouse ears are much more likely to stick around than they were before.

Disney pays parrot-handlers to entertain the tourist crowds in one shopping complex. Todd Ament is the head of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. He says the resort area's a cash cow for the city.

TODD AMENT: What this issue comes down to is that 5 percent of our land here in Anaheim generates 50 percent of our revenue to our general fund.

In other words, Disney wields a lot of clout in Anaheim. But the Sun Cal developer is planning to fight back with its own ballot measure. One that would make it harder for Disney to expand its theme parks.

Councilmember Lorri Galloway says the issue touches a nerve with a lot of people.

LORRI GALLOWAY: The city of Anaheim is a very tourist-driven city. And there are so many service-sector employees who are the fuel that fires that economic engine.

And so many of them have a tough time finding housing. Even if all 250 low-priced apartments are built in the Sun Cal project, thousands more like them are needed.

That means Damian Gomez will probably be rehearsing in cramped quarters for the foreseeable future.

I'm Jordan Davis for Marketplace.

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