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Company-owned existence

The modern-day company town is still no way to live

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The students living in this company town are subject to onerous rules. The Housing Office checks the apartments to ensure that they are cleaned regularly. If the apartment is found to be less than ideal, the residents are issued a citation; upon the third citation they are expelled from the apartment. If you lose your housing, you also lose your job. Guests to the apartment complexes must be signed in by a resident and must leave the premises by 1 a.m. If guests are discovered on property after hours, they are seized and sometimes turned over to state police for trespassing, resulting in the termination of the employee who signed them in. According to the student workers' Disney-owned visas, they have to be out of the country within 24 hours of being fired. Hope you managed to save some money while working on that popcorn cart!

These students are essentially migrant workers, traveling to Florida to work for short periods of time for low pay. For the bulk of 2009, Disney World was on a hiring freeze due to the recession. They were severely understaffed, yet they continued to offer all of their regular services. I observed that most employees were working without days off and on mandatory overtime. In the latter part of the year there were a number of fatalities linked to exhaustion, most notably the death of a monorail driver on the college program who was on the tail end of a 14-hour-long shift. Those in food and beverage positions often work 12-hour days with little or no break, because there's nobody to cover for them while they eat lunch.

Recreation is encouraged, but since the majority of these students don't have a car, their options are sorely limited. Employee buses run hourly to the parks, so most of the workers go to the parks on their day off. These people live and work together 24 hours a day, with nowhere to adequately blow off steam and reconnect with themselves as people rather than employees. It's no wonder that the most successful businesses in the area are the bars. (Howl at the Moon, anyone?) Social isolation is the result of company practices that restrict free time and where employees are able to use their disposable income. These situations are completely un-American, but since foreigners and college students are doing the time, and service jobs aren't seen as "real" jobs, nobody seems to care. Most people think the factory town is a sad backdrop for newspaper-selling street urchins on Broadway, that our more liberal interpretations of property and civil rights have made the concept of a company-owned life too absurd for today's America. Well, apparently we've all been had by the hardest-working American Dream-selling machine itself: Walt Disney World.

Brendan O'Connor is a graduate of Rollins College, an import from Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, and founder of the SIT Project (sitproject.com). This essay originated on Urban ReThink's Rethinking the City blog, rethinkingthecity.com.

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