Who are the people who go on “Disney Wonder™” cruise ships for their family summer vacation? They are mostly extroverts. The girls scream when they interact with Mickey or Pluto. Children of all ages dance when the fleshy characters from Ant Man appear. Some of the truly committed return year after year, hanging a felted mail-slot-thingy with slots for each family member on the outside of their cabin door – – Margie, Chuck, Allie & Trevor – – made on their first Disney™ cruise five years ago in a craft workshop offered onboard. The cruise reboots every week, with 2600 passengers exiting Monday morning and a new crop of 2600 arriving that afternoon. Each family’s arrival is announced over loudspeakers, just as its members cross over the gangplank threshold and step onto the ship: “The Hosta Family is Here!!!” This rouses a deafening round of applause and cheers from the twenty crewmembers lined up to greet each family this way. “The Garcia Family is Here!!!” “The Medling Family is Here!!!” “The Seizer Family is Here!!!” clap clap clap clap clap. This goes on for hours every Monday afternoon. And the crazy thing is, the crewmembers’ smiles seem genuine.
Why was I there? This past summer, during that week when July turns into August, for my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary the whole extended Seizer family, eleven in all, went on a Disney Wonder™ cruise from Vancouver, Canada up along the Alaskan coast then back down to Vancouver. The Alaskan views from the decks and through the cabin porthole window were “spectacular” (to quote everyone) as were the icy blue glittering glaciers, or what is left of them. But what made the trip interesting – – and it is not easy to make a ship full of extroverted children and their extroverted parents even tolerable – – was the crew. The crew was international in a way that only Disney, who imagined and then actually built a boat ride called “It’s a Small World” in 1964, could accomplish.
There were 1000 crew members and 2600 passengers on the Disney Wonder™, a ratio of one crewmember for every 2.6 people. This meant there was a crew member any time even the simplest question or desire crossed my mind. “Where would I find almond milk?” “Wait here, I’ll get it for you.” “Is there an accessible entrance to this theater?” “Come with me, I’ll take you.” Kinda creepy, everyone being so nice… and quite remarkable as a feat of employment.
The most satisfying Q&A sessions with crewmembers for this anthropologist, unsurprisingly, concerned the conditions of life onboard for crew members, life as a Disney cruise crewmember in general, and how one became one. I happened to be reading a draft chapter of Ilana Gershon’s wonderfully disturbing new ethnography on the current neoliberal model of employer/employee relations in successful U.S. companies. I was reading about all the ways that companies these days train employees to expect that they will work there only for a short time, until they are able to “move on.”
This reading primed me perfectly for what I found on the Disney Wonder™. Its crewmembers all work on contract. The length of their contracts vary. I met a young man from Indonesia whose contract was for four and a half months, with a mandatory break of six weeks before possible renewal. I met a Filipina woman who had a seven month contract with a mandatory seven week break. I met Scots, Aussies, So Africans, Portuguese, Trinidadians, and Indians.
Q: Where are they hired? A: In their own countries.
There is A LOT of paperwork and many interviews to go through. And then, even if offered, a would-be Disney™ employee must go to the American embassy in his own country and be granted a visa in order to be able to actually take the job. And U.S. embassies in many countries can be notoriously capricious in making the decision to grant or not to grant; this process can take years and many attempts.
OK once a crewmember makes it into the ranks, let’s get to the nitty gritty. Q: What are their sleeping arrangements on ship? A: They are either lucky and share a cabin with one other person, or they share in a group of four. They make schedules for use of the cabin bathroom.
There is a whole world for the crew on the lower decks, underneath the decks the public sees. Gyms, movie theaters, pools. Their wifi is excellent, and free; not so for the passengers above! And the crew can call home.
Andrew from So Africa has a 6 mos. contact / 6 wks. off. He’s renewed it now for 8 years. The hardest part for him is being away from family. He has an 8 yr old daughter that he has seen for a total, pieced together, of maybe 2 years of her life. The work here is the easy part, the hard part is being away from one’s own life. Andrew makes money here and sends it home.
Workers names on their name plates aren’t necessarily the names they are known by at home. For example, Murugesan from Tamilnadu. Tamil naming doesn’t conform to the first-and-last name form used in the U.S. Tamilians put their father’s (or husband’s) initial before their first name. So L. Murugesan put on his application form “L. Murugesan,” and the intake office required that he spell out what the “L” stands for (the same thing happens to me every time I use Western Union to send money to India: a full first name is required). So he wrote down “Lingam,” his father’s name. Lingam is the name they put on his name plate. So everyone on the ship calls him Lingam. He laughs as he tells me that whenever someone calls his home asking for Lingam, his wife knows immediately that it is someone from work.
The crew were open in talking about all this with the transient curious passenger. Their good-natured presence was hugely impressive, and in a way just the opposite of the dwindling glaciers; making headway up the coast of Alaska, the Disney Wonder™ seemed only to be successfully expanding its reach.
Susan Seizer is an anthropologist at Indiana University. She has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in South India and the US. She writes mostly about live performance, humor in use, and social stigma. She is the current editor of the Camp Antropology blog.