Disney World Finds Itself under Siege. Do Its Owners Wonder Why?

Movies Features Disney
Disney World Finds Itself under Siege. Do Its Owners Wonder Why?

“Why be a governor or a senator when you can be king of Disneyland?”—Walt Disney to a reporter asking if he would consider running for office, 1965

Disney’s movies, TV shows, and various other intellectual properties are probably at least a third of what I write about for Paste, and most of the time I’m able to keep my observations about them compartmentalized. Sometimes I simply cannot. Sometimes, the only thing I can think about when I watch something from the Mouse House is what cultural forces were responsible for it. So it is difficult to describe what, exactly, I feel as I watch the theme park that embodies its media empire besieged by fascists, flying Nazi flags outside its pristine gates, all while the government that has been friendly to Disney’s plans for expansion and redevelopment revokes the special arrangement that’s made the whole thing possible since the company acquired all the land in the 1960s.

On the one hand, it is unthinkable that the Walt Disney Company and Disney World specifically—one of Florida’s biggest employers and most overbearing lobbying entities—has found itself in a position between its employees’ calls for action and the appalling policies recently passed by the state it has called home for over 50 years. Historically tight-lipped and loyal Disney employees openly called on their employer to take a stand against a law passed by Governor Ron DeSantis and supported by the greater body of incoherent Trump worshippers: The state’s odious “Don’t Say Gay” law. Seemingly in retaliation, DeSantis and the state legislature moved to rescind Disney World’s status as a kind of private fiefdom within the state of Florida. The legislative and legal imbroglio around this has just begun, with Disney arguing that the revocation of the special governing powers surrounding the Reedy Creek Improvement District (the governing body on which the park sits and which was conceived through the efforts of Walt Disney, as I’ll explain) actually puts Florida taxpayers on the hook for said district’s $1B of outstanding debt.

On the other, it’s entirely predictable, given Disney’s current total-dominance goals in the ongoing cultural war. The sweeping scenes of Avengers lady-heroes and Latino-focused animated films that earn the company points for representation come after nearly a century of its own steady efforts to define its family-friendly brand in Hays Code terms. Its stories have only recently begun centering non-white protagonists of any kind, and if its catalog of releases in the past few years are any indication, it will never, ever do more than passingly acknowledge the existence of non-straight human beings—despite the efforts of its own creative staff, who claimed in an open letter that their inclusive stories often “come back from Disney corporate reviews shaved down to crumbs of what they once were,” and that, “Nearly every moment of overtly gay affection is cut at Disney’s behest, regardless of when there is protest from both the creative teams and executive leadership at Pixar.”

The stir these employees made by speaking out has also highlighted how the ground has shifted under the company’s feet. One assertion made more than once in a recent L.A. Times article and in other coverage by reporter Ryan Faughnder (who has followed and contextualized Disney’s conflict with its employees over the past few months) is that the most recent generation of professionals is “more vocal and demanding of its bosses than earlier generations.” It may be true in comparison with, say, our parents, but less so in the greater context of the preceding century, during which people killed and died to secure labor rights in the face of rapacious industrialization. In that context, the employees of a company saying they’re fed up with the company’s professed neutrality or indifference in the face of a culture war explicitly and gleefully trying to make their families illegal actually seems far more polite and measured than the company deserves.

It’s equally easy for those of us watching to see the company get in its own way regarding representation. This year’s Turning Red, about a young Asian girl who is horny and has periods and whose attraction for boys doesn’t end in betrothal for once, was unceremoniously dumped onto Disney+ rather than running in theaters, leaving the creators crestfallen. The Owl House, a show as gay as a Central Florida summer is long, was “too serialized” and “didn’t fit the Disney brand,” according to a scathing Reddit post by the show’s creator.

Those of us with family members who are gay, or transgender, or who otherwise don’t sit comfortably within the lines of heteronormativity increasingly have fewer entertainment options that don’t in some way fill the pockets of the Walt Disney Company. If you’ve watched anything with CGI or sound in it courtesy of special effects company Industrial Light & Magic (which is a mind-boggling number of movies), you’ve put a few pennies into the pockets of the Mouse—it bought ILM when it acquired George Lucas’ other minor asset, a little film series called Star Wars.

For its part, Disney did (eventually) go to lengths to campaign against the Don’t Say Gay bill, after it became clear how untenable their silence would be in the minds of the significant number of their employees and guests who identify as LGBTQ+ or who are just, you know, people with functional hearts. That they were unable to nix the backwards law is a high-profile loss in light of how often the Sunshine State’s legislature caves to their demands. One has to believe that failure and the degree of backlash from Florida politicians has caused Disney leadership to take a long hard look at its position in the state. The very ground beneath the theme park is a testament to the extent of its power there, after all.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District, which Florida carved out for Walt Disney World more than 50 years ago, was truly a feat. In his 2021 book about the yearslong maneuvering, Buying Disney’s World, Aaron H. Goldberg goes into exhaustive detail cataloging the unbelievable lengths Walt Disney and the upper echelon of his company went to in order to keep their identities concealed from the public at every stage of the land grab. According to Goldberg’s sources, one of Disney’s chief worries was that their involvement in the initial 20,000+ acre purchase would likely drive up the price of the parcels they sought to buy.

The level of secrecy sounds like something out of a Le Carré novel: Attorneys for the Walt Disney Company faked which law firms they worked for in order to obscure their connections to the company; shell corporations were used for the purchasing; at one point CIA operative Paul Helliwell, best known among his fellow agents for spending the 1960s funding the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion and otherwise doing his level best to destabilize Cuba, was on the Disney’s payroll for the project. Roy Disney, brother to Walt and the company’s money-man, traveled under an alias to keep the thing under wraps. Walt Disney is said to have boarded a private plane (on loan from Northrop Grumman, as the one he’d ordered from them had taken too long to arrive, Goldberg notes), flying at low altitude so that he could point out the area he thought looked the most suitable for his massive development. The public being allowed to bargain collectively from an informed position before agreeing to such an unprecedented sale was clearly out of the question: The plans were too big to sweat stuff like that.

As the land deals that eventually became Disney World grew in size and dollar amount, and the number of people who had to be kept quiet about it kept getting longer, local newspapers ran stories speculating about what mystery buyers had acquired millions of dollars in Florida land. At no point did local disclosure laws or, I guess, the conscience of anybody at the Walt Disney Company compel them to tell folks what was going on in their backyard.

The desire for such a huge purchase and the secrecy surrounding it all stemmed from Walt Disney’s distaste with how Disneyland in Anaheim, California had turned out. Goldberg writes that Disney expressed bewilderment at the far smaller development’s proximity to the outside world, at the ways in which the surrounding landscape profited off of his theme park. It cheapened his brand and disrupted his perfect vision. He wanted a Disney world, a place inside a bubble. It’s why, according to Goldberg, Disney rejected any ideas of placing the development near the coast; he didn’t want anything like the natural splendor of the ocean to detract from his theme park. No barrier, natural or man-made, could stand in his way.

Walt Disney World stands as physical proof that the Walt Disney Company has had the power to bend the government over its knee for half a century: Witness the millions it has spent lobbying Congress, in part to shape copyright laws as ever more favorable to corporations at the expense of the public domain. Even its argument that Florida must assume the debts of the theme park’s special district goes against the company’s own recent practices: It has spent the last couple of years claiming, unbelievably, that it does not owe royalties to the authors of works it has bought the rights to republish—something that would get any smaller company sued into the Earth’s mantle. It makes Disney’s assertion that the Reedy Creek Improvement District’s debts should transfer to the state of Florida hypocritical: According to Disney’s own stance, you shouldn’t be liable for an asset’s obligations just because you bought it, after all.

Disney’s problem isn’t that its ability to move stuff around has waned, nor that it’s taken a controversial stand, nor even that it has stumbled in its attempt to gracefully react to the vicissitudes of public opinion. Its problem is that the same government it lobbied to create its empire—the one that has historically cared so little about its citizens to let corporations like Disney have the run of things—has come to be run by an exclusionary, family-unfriendly ideology that makes Disney’s (ostensibly) inclusive and family-friendly brand stick out like a sore thumb.

The ideology of those running that government doesn’t allow for a mother to plan her family in a way that might allow her to afford a trip to Disney World (or be able to secure an abortion she may need to survive long enough to do so one day). It’s an ideology that argues that there should only be one door leading into a school because that is somehow less ridiculous than stopping the unfettered flow of guns that are now the leading cause of death among Disney’s target demographic. It’s an ideology ready to repress and bully into an early grave anybody who isn’t straight, and to systematically disenfranchise the demographics that are now, per capita, the most likely to buy a ticket to Disney’s movies (that would be people of color). It is an ideology categorically opposed to doing anything about the fact that much of the state surrounding the theme park is on track to be part of the Atlantic Ocean in the coming decades. It is an ideology that feels entitled to political power and cultural dominance regardless of whether a democratic majority agrees with it: The plans are too big to sweat stuff like that.

It is doubtless a stressed and scary time for Disney executives as they weather this public outcry from both ends of the political spectrum, as the legal and jurisdictional ground beneath Disney World’s feet is suddenly in question, as neo-Nazis demonstrate outside. It’s ironic how Disney has come out of this looking as if they’ve been caught flatfooted when you consider that they are a company that can turn swampland into the happiest place on Earth; that they are a company that can reshape laws so that they can continue holding the rights to century-old, household name characters until long after the men and women who first created them have given up the ghost; that they are a company that can simply decide one day that they feel like buying Star Wars, and make it so.

One presumes, then, that it could have, and still could, use its unparalleled and unprecedented cultural and legal clout to do things to benefit more than just itself. As it fights to keep everything wide open during a pandemic, blithely attempts to screw authors out of royalties, and requires prodding from market forces and its own beleaguered employees to make any kind of noise on questions of fundamental human rights, it’s pretty clear that it won’t. It won’t because, like the rising tide of authoritarian conservatism in American politics, it desires no accountability for itself and offers no remedy for those whom it has wronged. Giving an inch on any of that would cost Disney a buck somewhere. Walt’s successors surely know that. I wonder if, from inside the fantasy world that Walt moved heaven and earth to build, his successors have any thoughts on why the outside world has become such a fucking mess.

Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine.

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