Anti-Wokeness, Gay Days, and DeSantis: A Disney Expert Weighs In

in Walt Disney World

DeSantis smiling in front of a vibrant rainbow flag.

Credit: Inside the Magic

Inside the Magic continues its exclusive interview with Professor Richard Foglesong, a highly regarded scholar of the history of Walt Disney World and the author of Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando. Foglesong spoke with us regarding Governor DeSantis and Disney, the LGBTQIA+ pressure on the Mouse, and what the future could hold for the world’s most iconic media company.

Ron DeSantis on a podium inside of Disney World as Mickey Mouse looks in shock.
Credit: Edited by Inside The Magic

Read the first part of the interview here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Florida Senator Linda Stewart recently sent a letter to DeSantis demanding that the open positions on the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board be filled with someone from Orange County or someone who is related to the area, but there doesn’t seem to be any momentum to that. If I can quote from her letter, Senator Stewart said, “Unlike other special districts created in the state, the CFTOD board lacks any elected representation of the residents or taxpayers. Only one of the five appointed board members is from Orange County, and the others reside in Tampa, Sarasota, and Clearwater.”

I was there at the meeting of the county delegation. That bill was considered. Of course, everybody knew it wasn’t going to go anywhere, that it wouldn’t get a hearing. That’s been one of the challenges of the oversight board has been: knowing who their public is. The term “public” has been a much-used term in the colloquy of the oversight board.

A reporter asked [former CFTOD administrator] Glen Gilzean, after his first or second meeting, who their public was, because he had used that term. And without much apparent reflection, Gilzean said, well, our public is, the governor, the taxpayers, the two counties, and the employees. But what was significant by his absence in that comment was Disney. He didn’t list Disney as part of their public, [but] Disney has to be a key part of their public.

I-4 in Florida during the 70s
Credit: Karl E. Holland via Wikimedia Commons

Related: Governor DeSantis Signs $2.5 Billion Disney World Highway Bill Into Law

It’s a very interesting omission.

Because they build public works for the Walt Disney Company. You could, and should, include the other actors there. I don’t know about the governor. But, but the county commission of the two counties and the mayors of the two counties. But you have to include Disney there as well. 

And that was just like an afterthought, and that was so apparent from the meetings where Gilzean [was] part of the meeting. He would introduce people and talk about the groups that he had reached out to, the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts and the community colleges and the like. And okay. Well, they should be included.

But he didn’t reference the corporation for whom they built things and whom they regulated. And that’s significant by its absence and shouldn’t be.

Per the settlement, the CFTOD has largely been left intact. Reedy Creek has not been brought back. The CFTOD is still in charge of things. Given the vocal animosity between Disney and the district board, how do you see them cooperating in the future?

It’ll be a change. [Walt Disney World Resort President] Jeff Vahle has been quoted in the media as saying, we don’t hear from them. That they don’t hear, or maybe past tense now, didn’t hear from Garcia and Gilzean, that’s just odd. There needs to be some communication between them as to what Disney is planning in terms of investments and new theme parks, new rides, and the public works implications of those new projects.

There has to be some communication there. If it was [building supplies corporation] Martin Marietta we were talking about, there’s nothing improper about a mayor or county commissioners talking with big businesses that exist within a tax jurisdiction. That would be expected, not corrupt, not cronyism. It would be in the normal course of things. Just because they’re Disney doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be counseled or their counsel shouldn’t be taken.

It is interesting to see the sort of revolving chairs that has happened with the CFTOD board, as with chairman Garcia stepping down. Now that there has been at least some kind of resolution for the moment with Disney, do you think we’ll continue seeing the same frankly bizarre amount of movement on the board?

I think so, and I have to say this: when DeSantis and the GOP state legislature went after Disney, I think a lot of us were surprised that Republicans would behave that way. And now, when Republicans are behaving, they’re reverting back to who they were. 

Now I have to say this about, you know, Linda Stewart. They’ve got a lot of nerve, they being Democrats, to call out Republicans for the way in which they’re treating Disney because, you know, my book [Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando] came out in 2001, and I never heard a peep from any of the Democrat state legislators about what should happen to Disney.

Cover of "Married to the Mouse" with Walt Disney
Credit: Disney/Yale University Press, edited by ITM

Frankly, I thought they would be the champions for the analysis in the book, like the fact that Disney doesn’t pay impact fees. That’s a Democrat issue and they didn’t speak up about that. And Martin Garcia, correctly, wisely, made a point about that. He mentioned my book from the first meeting and recommended it to the other members of the board, and he was absolutely right about that. Where have the Democrats been on these abuses of power of the Disney government and the Disney corporation?

The governor has made “anti-woke crusading,” as many people would put it, a central part of his persona and his former presidential campaign. Do you feel his battle with Disney was an extension of that rather than something having to do with Disney specifically?

Oh, I think absolutely. And you see that in the governor’s book [The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival], which pushes the anti-woke issue and cites Disney as the best and worst example of wokeism. He talks there about going after Disney and that corporations shouldn’t come to Florida to be woke. Now, how do they put it? “Florida is a place where woke dies.”

The famous quote.

Yeah, the famous quote. And that brings me to something related. One of the clear reasons why Disney took up the “Don’t Say Gay” bill was because of their workforce, they have a large gay workforce. [Former Disney CEO] Bob Chapek was being pushed by his employees, especially the costumed characters to talk back to DeSantis on the “Don’t Say Gay” deal. And Chapek wouldn’t quite say those words, and then his predecessor [Bob Iger] stepped to the floor and did. So I’m curious now what’s going to happen in that regard. 

Mickey sneakily peering from behind a door to see Disney CEO Bob Iger
Credit: Edited by Inside the Magic

Related: Defiant Bob Iger Ignores Angry Disney Fans After Victory

I had wondered, before this seeming resolution occurred, what would happen when and if DeSantis weaponized the oversight district on this type of issue. That is to say, push the oversight district to use its powers to punish Disney for wokeness in the form of cartoons, movies, and things of that nature.

Would they cave, was my question. We may find out yet whether that’s going to happen. The question now is whether there’s going to be pushback, if not from the Disney Company, from the CEOs to Jeff Vahle, who is known to be a Republican. But whether the cartoon characters, the gay characters, whether they will pressure the company not to cave too much to the oversight board of DeSantis. Is that over? Or will that recur?

Governor DeSantis gave a statement after the settlement was announced regarding the “Don’t Say Gay” law or the Parental Rights and Education Act. I think it can be inferred when he said, “We’ve always acted with all the Disney issues, parents’ rights, and education replacing Reedy Creek and making sure it was a state control board. We have been vindicated on all those actions.”

It’s hard to take him referencing Disney issues and parents’ rights in education as anything but an allusion to the conflict over “Don’t say gay.”

I agree. Mike Schneider is an AP reporter who writes about Disney. He’s a friend of mine and, has interviewed me frequently, including on this latest story. In fact, I was a reviewer for the publisher of his latest book, which is really about gay relations at Disney World. The fight between gay employees, cartoon characters in particular, and the Disney Company and the labor union out there as well.

I think it’s okay for me to say that Mike himself is gay. Um, and so I’m willing to see what coverage he might provide or speculation he might offer on this issue of how those relationships between the gay employees and the company and the oversight district under DeSantis are going to go forward.

pride disney world
Credit: CBS

It’s very interesting how the rights of gay employees and the company itself have become so much part of its recent politics. A company that has been considered synonymous with cultural conservatism for decades is now perceived as one of the most progressive companies in America, almost against its will.

A recent survey from American conservative values ETF labeled Disney as the “most woke liberal company” in the country, which is fascinating to think of as different from 20 years ago or 50 years ago.

Yeah. From the company that gave us Uncle Remus.

Exactly. As much as they don’t want that really front and center these days.

Right. Which they don’t recognize now. It’s part of their repertoire. Some of that just mirrors what’s happened in the movie world, that Hollywood actors are known to be liberal and gay.

But it’s also something I see, especially during football season. All the gay-themed advertisements where you see mixed race couples and couples that are maybe trans and certainly couples that are gay used [in marketing] so regularly. That’s not going away. And that’s what I wondered back when DeSantis was running for president, how his anti-woke stance was going work for him in corporate fundraising, depending on, well, whether he became a Republican nominee. We know that’s not gonna happen now.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in front of an American flag
Credit: Ron DeSantis

But Disney employees can play into that. And one of the ways in which I think the cartoon characters have had influence over the company is because while Disney may now be woke, I’m not sure they want the park visitors to know that the cartoon characters are gay, just because of how that relates to children.

By cartoon characters, you mean the Disney Cast Members dressed as cartoon characters at various parks, just to clarify?

Right. It’s widely known and reported on, factually, by Mike Schneider, who, by the way, used to work at Disney. My own sons, who worked at Disney when they were in high school, twenty years ago, told me, dad, it’s really the cartoon characters that are gay.

That’s apparently the case. And, again, that’s why Gay Days, for example, were problematical for so many years to the Disney company, and they’ve now relented on that and acknowledged Gay Days. But it’s a challenge for the company, I think, to see how woke they’re going to continue to be and whether cultural conservatives [try] to provoke them on this issue or abuse them on this issue.

Disneyland Gay Days

I think it’s a little-discussed phenomenon that corporate advertising tends to be the cutting edge of progressive politics because any corporation is going to be looking for the next available demographic to market to. So regardless of the politics of a corporation, they’re always going to be marketing towards the most emerging group.

That’s why I think this is not all over, and I think you’re saying the same thing. Just because that agreement was signed doesn’t mean that Disney advertising is going change or that DeSantis’ dislike for it is going to [either[.

What do you think the lasting effects of this DeSantis Disney conflict are going to be for the company?

My first response ism it’s going be a Florida phenomenon, as opposed to a Hollywood or Anaheim or Burbank or California phenomenon. I don’t know where I don’t know where DeSantis is going. He can’t run for governor again, but he can run for the US Senate. He can run for president. 

So, he may bring cultural politics into play again in another race. The thing to remember about Disney, despite everything else that we’ve said, is that they’re transactional. Not quite like Donald Trump, but they’re transactional. 

I think one of the reasons why they bargain with DeSantis here is because the Democrats in Florida don’t offer them much. The Democrats might wish that the imbroglio with DeSantis would push the Disney Company to the Democratic side, but they just haven’t had plausible candidates [laughs].

I say that laughingly, though I don’t think it’s funny. I wish it were different from that. So I see the Disney corporation returning to the Republicans here for their campaign contributions.

Do you think Disney will resume its previous relationship with the GOP now that it has settled with DeSantis? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

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