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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An expanding business based in ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - Scotland

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - North East Region

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - South West Region

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas