Exclusive: The dark side of the Magic Kingdom?

Fairytale may be over for Disneyland Paris

Disneyland Paris launched its Christmas season with a light show that wrapped its castle in wintry images earlier this month. But behind the scenes, there was a far less warm and fuzzy atmosphere.

At the end of October, the National Union of Autonomous Trade Unions (Unsa), a French confederation of trade unions, wrote to the chief executive of Disneyland Paris demanding an improvement in working conditions following the attempted suicide of a staff member, The Independent can disclose.

The incident took place earlier in the month when a worker in the horticulture department tried to kill himself after receiving a notification to attend an interview with his supervisors.

“He emptied a barrel of petrol over his head and took a lighter to set fire...but a  colleague jumped on him at the last moment, preventing him from committing the irreparable,” said Patrick Maldidier, a Unsa representative.

A spokesman for Disneyland Paris said the park was “saddened” by the actions of the employee, who survived the attempt on his own life and is still being closely monitored. The spokesman added: “Several investigations are being conducted by independent experts to understand this incident.  The employee has received counselling and is now back at work.”

But Unsa has opened its own investigation “to understand the reasons” for the suicide attempt, and said they are planning to file a complaint against Disneyland Paris.

In the letter to theme park officials, it warned of a “ deterioration of the social climate which is noticed by us as well as the employees within the company”.

It added: “We believe that this deterioration is related to changes in working conditions. This deterioration of the social climate is also accentuated by an absence of dialogue and a sharp increase in disciplinary sanctions.”

The letter, which was sent on 28 October, continued: “The behaviour of the management and the human resources administrators is in this sense significant. Therefore we ask you to kindly take these findings into consideration in order to find sustainable sensitive solutions to ease the current tensions which only increase the psychosocial risks just about everywhere at  Disneyland Paris.”

Disneyland Paris declined to respond to union’s claims when approached by The Independent, but the attempted suicide is not the first incident of its kind involving park staff. Two chefs took their own lives in 2010. A Disney staff and management health committee investigation found no evidence of work harassment after the first suicide, and Disneyland Paris directors denied that the second suicide was work-related.

It followed a strike inside the Disney theme park just before Christmas 2009 when the daily parade was replaced with staff marching in protest at a pay freeze.  A spokesman for Disney said there was no connection between “that minor workforce disruption involving less than 2 per cent of staff” and the tragedies of 2010.

The travails of Disneyland Paris stand in stark contrast to the “ service with a smile” the staff at Disney’s US parks are renowned for. This has not been lost on theme park fans.

In September, a petition demanding higher standards at Disneyland Paris signed by 5,000 disenchanted fans was sent to Bob Iger, chief executive of the California-based Walt Disney Company. It was triggered by the cancellation of four shows and the closure of multiple attractions. Since the petition was sent it has remained open to new signatures and the tally now stands at just over 7,500. Disney declined to comment on whether any action has been taken as a result.

Unlike its parks in the United States, Disney’s outpost in Paris is not wholly-owned by the Walt Disney Company. It has a 39.8 per cent stake in it with 50.2 per cent floated on the stock exchange in Paris and 10 per cent in the hands of Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed who saved Disneyland Paris from bankruptcy by injecting $350m into its parent company Euro Disney in 1994.

Over the past six months alone it has lost 8.4 per cent of its share price, which closed on Tuesday at €4.52, giving it a market value of €176.2m. Since Disneyland Paris opened in 1992, it has made a loss 14 times and the dark clouds still haven’t cleared. In the year to 30 September 2013 revenue fell by 1 per cent to €1.3bn as the economic downturn continued.

“We felt this in theme park attendance and hotel occupancy, notably with fewer guests coming from France and southern Europe,” said Euro Disney’s chief executive Philippe Gas, who was paid €688,746 in 2012 and granted Walt Disney Company stock and options with a value of €699,593. Since he took over in September 2008, Euro Disney has made total net losses of €350.5m. Its red ink has been driven by financing charges on the €1.7bn of debt which was used to fund construction of the resort and had still not been paid back.

The interest and repayments on the debt have left Euro Disney with little money to invest in new attractions which in turn has limited its potential to grow revenues, although a spokesman for Disney maintained that considerable investment continues: “Disney has recently renovated two guest hotels with a third refurbishment up next.  In 2014 we will launch the first attraction based on the movie Ratatouille, which follows the launch of the successful Disney Dreams in 2012 and Toy Story Playland in 2010.”  He added that Disneyland Paris had maintained its employment levels since 2009 “while many employers have significantly reduced their workforces”, and pointed out that staff salaries had increased by an average of 10% between 2008 and 2012.

Last year, the Walt Disney Company finally waved its magic wand and took over the bank loans in a refinancing which reduced the interest rate, saving Euro Disney €45m over the next five years.

The effect of this was felt in its recent results as its financial expenses were reduced by €24.9m to €51.6m. However, it still wasn’t enough to bring a sparkle to Euro Disney’s finances and it made another net loss – this time finishing €78.2m in the red. A happy ending still seems far, far away.

* Some supplementary comments from Disney’s spokesman were added to this article after its initial publication.

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