In a stunning move, Florida governor Ron DeSantis has just signed a new law that next year would end the special benefits that The Walt Disney Company uses to self-govern the land surrounding its theme parks near Orlando.
The move is in part retaliation for Disney’s criticism of a new law that bans instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade; the law also mandates that education on these topics in any grade be “age appropriate.” Even though the law doesn’t mention gays, critics claim it will have an overall chilling effect on gay educators. Disney, under pressure from its gay and transgender employees, has vowed to seek the bill’s repeal.
In the end, it’s likely that “the House of Mouse” and the Florida legislature will work out a compromise renewal of the company’s special status before it is set to expire in June 2023.
But the controversy has shone a spotlight on just how much Disney has changed since it was founded 99 years ago as a cartoon studio. For decades it has represented wholesome entertainment for children and catered to the tastes of the middlebrow American.
Now Disney’s critics rebuke it for thanking Chinese officials involved in genocide in Xinjiang, shoehorning sexual ideas and transgender ideology into children’s entertainment, and eliminating all mention of “ladies,” “gentlemen,” “boys,” and “girls” in its theme parks.
There’s no doubt that “Woke Disney” has come a long way from the values of its founder. Two months before the 1964 election, Walt Disney wore a Barry Goldwater button while accepting the Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson, Goldwater’s opponent. Walt Disney was also a key supporter of Ronald Reagan for governor of California in 1966, just before Disney’s untimely death.
Disney’s crusade against the recent Florida law — a law that would have been uncontroversial until very recently — is an unusual risk for an entertainment giant. A March Public Opinion Strategies poll found the Florida bill backed by 61 percent to 26 percent. Even among people who “know someone LGBTQ,” the law is supported by 61 percent to 28 percent.
National Review’s Rich Lowry is surprised that Disney entered the fray “not to serve its shareholders, enhance its profitability, protect its intellectual property, or align itself with its vast and politically diverse customer base.” Rather, it appears that The Mouse became “woke” in order to cater to “a small number of vocal progressives” who work for it.
Executives chose to ignore the many thousands of its employees who either support the law or want the company to stay away from the issue. In March, a large number of conservative Disney employees wrote an open letter to their bosses saying that the internal culture at The Walt Disney Company (TWDC) is a hostile work environment for them.
Their letter, which has received little media coverage, noted:
Employees who want TWDC to make left-wing political statements are encouraged, while those of us who want the company to remain neutral can say so only in a whisper out of fear of professional retaliation. The company we love seems to think we don’t exist or don’t belong here. This politicization of our corporate culture is damaging morale and causing many of us to feel our days with TWDC might be numbered.
Furthermore, as this politicization makes its way into our content and public messaging, our more conservative customers will feel similarly unwanted. You can only preach at or vilify your audience for so long before they decide to spend their money elsewhere.
Nor do all gay Disney employees support the company’s crusade. Journalist Jack Posobiec received internal Disney message boards that included several comments such as this one:
I’m gay and I think any form of sexual education shouldn’t be taught until you’re older and able to understand it. Not when you’re young and influential to the people who are teaching you. . . . Children Kindergarten through 3rd grade are learning basic skills still. How to read, write, count, socialize. They don’t even start going through puberty until maybe 4th grade at the earliest. So leave the bill alone because it isn’t infringing on ANY member of the LGBT community nor is it to the heterosexual one.
Rob Long, who was executive producer of the beloved TV comedy Cheers, used to have a production office in Disney’s animation building and knows the company well. He thinks some of its movies such as Toy Story, Up, and Coco “represent the finest in storytelling.”
But he told me that the company is now forgetting that its stories should seek to reflect the culture it’s trying to entertain; instead Disney is trying to make its audience “better people.” “There is an old saying in Hollywood that nobody pays for homework, the preachy messaging that grates on many and turns customers away,” he said.
A recent company-wide Zoom staff meeting at Disney about the Florida bill provides clear evidence that executives are into giving audiences “homework.” Executive producer for Disney Television Animation Latoya Raveneau touted Disney’s new efforts to promote gay themes. “In my little pocket of Proud Family Disney TVA, the show runners were super welcoming . . . to my not-at-all-secret gay agenda,” Raveneau said in a leaked video obtained by journalist Christopher Rufo. “I was just, wherever I could, adding queerness. No one would stop me, and no one was trying to stop me.”
At the same time, Karey Burke, president of Disney’s General Entertainment Content, pledged in another company-wide Zoom call that at least 50 percent of its characters will be LGBTQ or racial minorities by the end of the year.
People who knew Walt Disney told me that were he alive today, he’d be broadly supportive of expanding civil rights to gays. But he would draw the line at his company being weaponized in favor of a cultural agenda steeped in “wokeness.” He would also be keenly aware of Disney’s fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders and employees. Disney stock is off 33 percent from a year ago and has fallen some 10 percent since it became clear that its special theme-park privileges were in jeopardy. More ominously, an April survey by the Trafalgar Group found that more than 69 percent of respondents said they were likely to support “family-friendly alternatives” to Disney.
Finally, Walt Disney hated hypocrisy. He would be stung by Governor DeSantis’s observation that the company he founded was pushing a “social warrior” agenda in the U.S. while at the same time remaining silent doing huge business in China with the blessing of the Chinese Communist Party, which is the enemy of human rights for the people of the Uyghur region, Hong Kong, and Tibet.
Walt Disney was a visionary who originally called his Orlando project Epcot, an experimental community of tomorrow. After his death, the company turned away from the Epcot vision and built Disney World and a series of now-overpriced theme parks.
For all the magic it makes, Disney has also developed a reputation as a conglomerate run by greed. Now add liberal guilt to that mix, and it’s a portrait of a company that old Walt would in many ways barely recognize.