The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I went to Disney World. Ignore Twitter: The Kingdom is still magic.

Disney World is pictured in August 2021 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (John Raoux/AP)
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At some point during my family’s visit to Disney World, I started to wonder where I was supposed to find all the degeneracy the House of Mouse is accused of peddling. “It’s A Small World” remains a compilation of national stereotypes. The men’s and women’s rooms are still clearly marked. And Americana remains alive and well at Tom Sawyer Island, which is located across the way from the Hall of Presidents and encircled by a moat patrolled by the Liberty Belle paddleboat.

The trip wasn’t simply a reprieve from Twitter and the angry rhetoric that defines that digital morass. It was a reminder of just how divorced from reality such spaces and such language really are.

That’s especially so at Disney World, the appeal of which has always been tied to the creation and maintenance of an alternate reality. It’s just that during our recent trip, the distractions the park was shutting out were related to Disney itself.

The failed congressional candidate who set up shop nearby to accuse Disney of supporting “groomers” was entirely invisible. The noise Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) made about removing Disney’s self-governing status to bolster his credibility with a GOP base itching for culture war victory couldn’t be heard. And Disney’s foolish decision to insert itself into the fight over a Florida law that gives individual parents the ability to sue if they don’t like what teachers are saying about sexual orientation went undiscussed.

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It’s that last choice that has caused Disney so much trouble outside the Magic Kingdom’s walls. Disney chief executive Bob Chapek angered activist Disney employees when he initially explained the company’s decision not to get involved with the fight over the law, declaring “Corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds. Instead, they are often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame.”

Faced with an internal revolt, Disney took a harder line against the legislation, and Chapek’s prediction came to pass. Disney higher-ups tried to mollify activist voices within the company via online meetings in which executives insisted that the company was super-progressive and committed to reshaping the culture, both through lobbying and depictions of gay characters in movies such as the forthcoming “Lightyear.” Naturally, videos of these meetings leaked, and conservative activist Christopher Rufo posted clips that poured more fuel on the fire. The result? Disney, one of the most beloved cultural institutions in a divided country, ended up accused of bigotry by the left and by the right of recruiting children for medical procedures that can have lifelong consequences.

This fight has played out largely online where, as Jonathan Haidt noted in a recent essay for the Atlantic, social media cocoons us in ideological worlds of our own making and gives both marginal conspiracy theories (on the right) and circular firing squads viciously regulating ideological purity (on the left) outsize importance.

The blowup over Disney is so intense because both sides see themselves as absolutely in the right, and the issues at play activate what Haidt calls moral foundations. Liberals are more strongly committed to notions of fairness and equality, which they believe the Florida law violates by targeting LGBTQ students, families and teachers. Conservatives are attached to notions of purity and authority, which they believe are being upended by content and ideas that they see as sexualizing children.

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Yet, I can’t stress enough how little this online war appeared to mean to virtually anyone inside the park. For all the chat about decline and the horrible insinuations about how Disney wants to abuse children, the only real accommodation to political correctness I saw was the removal of the wench being auctioned by buccaneers on Pirates of the Caribbean. That change happened years ago, though. And Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow appears numerous times throughout the attraction, even as he testifies in a defamation suit against his ex-wife, a proceeding rife with ugly allegations about drug use and domestic violence.

Guests in Orlando didn’t appear to be fighting the culture wars, digging through viral videos or engaging in vicious pile-ons for the sake of scoring social media points. They were focused on planning their rides to minimize wait times, figuring out where to go for parades or a quick snack and trying to coordinate photos with characters, a significantly trickier activity in the covid-19 era.

And they appeared happier for it.

I know I was.