Disney has landed in the culture war crosshairs. Conservative activists and politicians have set their sights on the entertainment giant, urging boycotts of theme parks and media and threatening business operations in response to the company’s stance on LGBTQ issues.
After Disney spoke out against the Parental Rights in Education law that prohibits discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in lower elementary school grades, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) attacked the company, saying it “crossed the line” with its criticism. Lawmakers at the state and national level have taken aim at the company’s unique tax status in Florida, home to its largest theme park, and its Mickey Mouse copyright.
Pushback from conservatives escalated when internal Disney videos obtained by an activist showed employees discussing efforts to add more representation of LGBTQ+ characters.
Adding fuel to the fireworks: the rediscovery by conservatives that announcements before pyrotechnic shows no longer addressed visitors as “Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls” but rather “Dreamers of all ages.” Several media outlets reported last summer that the change was part of a diversity effort.
In recent weeks, a chorus has joined DeSantis in criticizing the company, which brings millions of visitors to its four theme parks and more than two dozen resorts in the state each year. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) urged people to cancel their trips to the parks in a campaign update headlined “I AM DONE WITH DISNEY!” Protests have formed around Disney properties in California and Florida, including one Saturday at Disney World in Orlando that featured a costumed mouse wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat.
Conservative commentator Candace Owens called for a boycott to her 3 million Twitter followers while the Daily Wire, which publishes Owens’s column, vowed to mount an entertainment empire to rival Disney’s. Fox News featured 10 families who were swearing off the company “due to its left-leaning politics,” and Daily Wire wrote about families canceling Disney vacations over the “company’s woke ideology.” The author of the Daily Wire piece tweeted that “hundreds” of parents had sent emails saying that they were canceling theme park trips or Disney’s streaming service.
In an opinion piece for FoxNews.com, conservative writer Bethany Mandel wrote about calling off a planned trip to Disney World for her family amid the controversy, in part due to cost. Instead, she wrote, they would visit SeaWorld and Legoland.
“Our family life won’t be missing much without Disney, we’ll fill the gap,” she wrote. “But Disney will come to miss customers like our family.”
Anti-racism, tattoos and no more ‘wench auctions’: Disney’s ‘woke’ moves spark a conservative backlash
But will the company’s immensely popular theme parks suffer? History suggests it’s not likely. And in real time, some Disney-focused travel agents say they haven’t seen a hit to their business. Disney declined to comment for this story.
The Washington Post contacted 13 travel agency businesses that specialize in Disney trips. Most did not respond or declined to weigh in on a politically radioactive topic.
But the two agencies that responded said they had not witnessed a backlash in bookings or cancellations.
“It has been a nonissue for us,” said Len Testa, president of the trip-planning site TouringPlans, which includes a travel agency. “No impact on the travel side.”
In an email, he said he believed one person had emailed to cancel their free subscription to the site. But Testa said he worried more when Disney had declined to take a public stand on the LGBTQ legislation. The company faced ire from liberals for initially refusing to take a public stance on the legislation, which was derided by critics as the “don’t say gay” bill.
“If Disney had not taken a stand against the bill, we were certain we would’ve lost business,” he wrote.
Florida wants gay tourists. A bill restricting LGBTQ topics in schools sends the wrong message, critics say.
Pete Werner, co-owner of Dreams Unlimited Travel, also said he wasn’t seeing cancellations or a slowdown in business. Parks have been busy, even as prices have increased and Disney has added fees for some services.
“Last year, sales-wise, was the best year we ever had,” he said. “This year is outpacing it.”
Inevitably, some conservative fans will follow through on boycott threats and spend their travel budgets outside of Disney’s parks or cruise line.
But like Testa, Werner said most of his customers were unhappy with the “tepid” and delayed response that Disney had to the legislation. He said his followers, knowing he’s gay, urged him to share his thoughts about the bill.
Werner’s Disney empire includes the DIS website, discussion boards, the DIS Unplugged podcast network and a real estate company that specializes in people who want to move closer to the parks in Central Florida. He said Disney fans might battle over their politics in online forums, but he doesn’t believe political issues will drive decisions about visiting the parks.
“At the end of the day, what draws people to Disney is a lot stronger than that — the connection, the emotional resonance that Disney has with their hardcore fans,” he said. “It’s kind of impervious to politics.”
The “woke” grenade has been lobbed at Disney before. In 2018, the company updated the Pirates of the Caribbean ride to remove a “wench auction” scene. Two years ago, Disney announced an overhaul of the Splash Mountain water ride to strip it of theming from the controversial film “Song of the South.” And the Jungle Cruise ride has been updated to remove “negative depictions of ‘natives.’”
A guest columnist for the Orlando Sentinel went viral for bemoaning the changes.
“The next time I ride Jungle Cruise I will not be thinking about the gloriously entertaining puns of the skippers, I will be thinking about Disney’s political agenda,” he wrote. “That’s a mood killer.”
The most famous backlash came in the late 1990s, when the Southern Baptist Convention voted to boycott Disney over LGBT issues, including Ellen DeGeneres coming out as a lesbian on her ABC show, the annual “Gay Days” event at Disney World organized by outsiders and the company’s extension of health benefits to partners of LGBTQ workers.
In 1997, the first year of the boycott and part of Disney World’s 25th anniversary celebration, attendance at the signature Magic Kingdom park grew by 3 million, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported. Combined attendance at the Florida parks hit records through 2000, according to an Orlando Sentinel report on industry estimates. The boycott ended in 2005.
Over time, the company has made efforts to embrace LGBTQ fans in more visible ways, although it wasn’t always so progressive and still faces criticism for representation. It added same-sex celebrations to Disney Fairy Tale Weddings packages in 2007; released an “It Gets Better” video supporting the community in 2011; launched a collection of consumer products supporting LGBTQ groups in 2018 and put on Magical Pride, a park-sponsored event for LGBTQ fans in Paris, in 2019. Last year, the company updated its guidelines for employees — called cast members — to allow more flexibility to wear gender-inclusive hairstyles, jewelry, nail styles and costumes.
In every year from 2007 until 2019, when parks in Shanghai and Hong Kong saw significant declines, companywide attendance at Disney’s worldwide attractions grew, according to industry estimates.
Mark Pinsky, who covered the Southern Baptist boycott as a religion writer at the Orlando Sentinel and wrote a book called “The Gospel According to Disney,” said the boycott did not have a discernible impact on attendance in Florida.
“I think the lesson from the Baptist boycott is stand up to bullies and it won’t hurt the bottom line,” he said. “I think the lesson that now [Disney CEO] Bob Chapek, a little bit late, has learned is the same lesson.”
Pinsky said that taking kids or grandkids to Disney has become “a cultural imperative” in America, “like a pre-bucket-list tick-off.” And he doesn’t expect criticism from DeSantis — or complaints on social media — to change that.
“Tell your 4-year-old that this is a larger matter of wokeness, and that’s why they’re not going to get to see Mickey,” he said.
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