How Disney Found Itself In the Middle of a “Culture War?”

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Credit: Inside the Magic

Following the Florida tussle with Governor Ron DeSantis over the Walt Disney World Resorts governing body called the Reedy Creek Improvement District, many are questioning if Disney should be engaging in politics in any capacity moving forward.

Left: Searcher Clade holds his dog, looking confused. Right: Buzz Lightyear looks confidently up at a rainbow sky.
Credit: Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar

The last few years have been highly turbulent for The Walt Disney Company—political tensions between Disney and elected officials, especially within Florida. The battles between the entertainment and Theme Park giant have remained lukewarm since word got out that the company supported Florida’s controversial Parental Rights bill, for example.

The real dilemma for any company, especially for a business as big as Disney, is what is the real benefit for the organization to be engaged and enter the public domain and political debate of current social issues that affect society. Any company’s opinions, actions, business decisions, and statements can have many financial implications in an ever-changing political environment.

On CNBC earlier this week, this question was brought up by Squak Box’s Joe Kernen to business expert Paul Polman on if companies like The Walt Disney Company should be engaged in “culture wars?” Take a look at the following clip in the tweet below to watch the exchange between the two:

“I’m not going to adopt the values that Gen-Z or Millennials have. Did @Disney benefit from entering the culture wars? Why open the bees nest? Why enter into these divisive issues and take a stance?” @JoeSquawk asks @PaulPolman, author of “Net Positive.”

This got us thinking, should Disney be engaging in all of these issues? Would it be better for business if Disney just kept quiet about societal issues and focused on its core, which is pure storytelling at its core? Let’s take a look back at some of the most recent hot-button issues that have taken place.

Elsa (Idina Menzel) with Pride flag background

Walt Disney World vs. Gov. Ron DeSantis

The battle over Disney’s Reedy Creek special tax district between Governor DeSantis and Disney lasted for years. The dispute between the two began with Disney’s public stance against Florida’s HB 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, which was drafted to prohibit classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in K-3 classrooms and to require such conversations after third grade to be age-appropriate. After Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law in late March 2022, Disney immediately fired back with a statement condemning the bill’s passing and vowing to stand with those who endeavored to see the law repealed.

In April 2022, Florida lawmakers passed a law that would dissolve special tax districts in the Sunshine State before 1968, including the Reedy Creek Improvement District, Disney’s special tax district that effectively grants Disney the privilege of a self-governing status. The dissolution was set to be effective in the summer of 2023.

Just recently, the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Senate passed their version of the law during a special session to discuss the state’s takeover of the Reedy Creek District. The new bill HB 9B, which saves Reedy Creek from dissolution, calls for several significant changes, including empowering Governor DeSantis to hand-pick board members for Reedy Creek and officially changing the district’s name to the “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

Ron DeSantis and Roy O. Disney with Disney World's Cinderella Castle in the background

The 189-page bill removes landowners’ ability to pick their board members and places restrictions on who can serve on the board for the district. Anyone with work experience with a Theme Park or entertainment complex in the previous three years would be ineligible to serve.

Critics in the past that opposed the law have said that the bill is less about revamping Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District, a move that would give the governor authority to appoint board members but more about settling a score with Disney.

Splash Mountain Gets Canceled 

Perhaps one of the most controversial topics discussed among the loyal Disney Parks fan base community is the subject of the upcoming retheming of Splash Mountain. Initially first announced in the Summer of 2020, this will drop the original and somewhat “problematic” Song of the South (1946) theme and replace it with a brand new story based on Disney Animation’s The Princess and the Frog (2009).

Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is set to replace Splash Mountain at Walt Disney World and Disneyland California in late 2024. A description of the new version of the ride is below:

“Tiana’s Bayou Adventure will take guests on a musical adventure inspired by the beloved story and characters from the fan-favorite film. Picking up where the film left off, guests will join Princess Tiana, Naveen and jazz-loving alligator Louis on an adventure through the bayou as they prepare to host a one-of-a-kind Mardi Gras celebration where everyone is welcome. Along the way, guests will encounter familiar faces, make new friends and travel through the bayou to original music inspired by songs from the film as they are brought into the next chapter of Tiana’s story.”

Despite the announcement of the impending closure of Splash Mountain, over 94,000 people have signed a petition to get The Walt Disney Company to stop the change. This pales in comparison to the 21,000 signatures that the Re-theme Splash Mountain received before the Disannouncedment to close the historicaloric version of the attraction.

With that much support for the iconic and beloved ride, many wonder if the closure of the rides in the Disney Parks was ultimately the correct business decision.

Splash Mountain statue of Br'er Bear and Br'er Fox outside the ride
Credit: Disney

Inclusion in Disney Animation and Entertainment

Some of the most recent works from Disney Animation Studios and shows included on Disney Plus have included much diversity in their characters. Recent Disney films such as Lightyear (2022) and Strange World (2022) included LGBTQ+ characters and were massive box office flops.

Both films were dubbed by some as Disney’s “wokest” movies, as it’s left a generally sour taste on the palates of most movie-goers. While Disney has had other successes in and out of animation recently, such as Wakanda Forever (2022) and Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), Strange World, and Lightyear have certainly been met with severe repercussions financially. This has already resulted in the restructuring of the studio.

In addition to the films, most recently, Disney received backlash for one of its newest shows, The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder (2023)

Credit: Disney

Disney’s efforts to promote representation, diversity and inclusion on the show appeared to have backfired, as a scene in the Disney Plus original reboot, The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder, sparked controversy among viewers who claim that Disney continues to promote “woke garbage” now adding “anti-white” propaganda on a “kids show.”

In a clip from the Disney Plus, original show The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder (2022), shared by @cartoonishclaude on TikTok, Penny Proud (Kyla Pratt), Dijonay Jones (Karen Malina Whiteand), Maya Leibowitz-Jenkins (Keke Palmer), Myron Lewinski (Marcus T. Paulk), and Zoey Howzer (Soleil Moon Frye) perform a reparations rap criticizing systemic prejudice, racism, and white supremacy that affect thousands, if not millions, of Americans each year.

While the show was praised earlier this year for its autism representation and depiction, it would appear that the latest clip is stirring outrage among viewers again, calling Disney “woke” and blaming CEO Robert Iger for continuing to promote this kind of content.

walt disney company headquarters sign
Credit: Disney

How Should Disney Move Forward?

The question moving forward will ultimately come down to one thing, unfortunately: money. Disney CEO Bob Iger must make significant strategic decisions to reset the company’s culture if it wishes to remain the world’s premier entertainment and Theme Park organization. As we head further into Disney’s 100th Anniversary celebration, it will certainly be interesting to see how The Walt Disney Company deals with the “culture wars” in the future.

Do you think Disney should participate in specific political issues or campaigns?  Let us know what you think by leaving us a comment below.


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