Disneyland Cleansed Its Problematic Past—and Flung Itself Into the Culture Wars

The Happiest Place on Earth’s embrace of diversity-boosting measures may upset some, but it shows executives know which way the cultural winds are blowing

When Disneyland reopened in April after an unprecedented 13-month closure in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, visitors found a park outfitted with hygiene-promoting exhortations around every corner: hand-sanitizing stations, self-distancing markers, signs reminding guests to stay masked at all times.

But it’s not just the park’s toilets Disneyland officials thought needed cleaning up. It turns out the Happiest Place on Earth also spent the hiatus sanitizing some of its attractions to acknowledge the rapid evolution in national attitudes toward diversity and inclusion in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests, and an uptick in violence against Asian Americans.

“We want our guests to see their own backgrounds and traditions reflected in the stories, experiences, and products they encounter in their interactions with Disney,” Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products, wrote on the corporate website in April.

In practice, that has meant rethinking some of Disneyland’s oldest characters and longest-running attractions. Changes include removing questionable depictions of indigenous peoples and other colonialist content from the Jungle Cruise riverboat ride so that it aligns with Disney’s Jungle Cruise movie, to be released July 30, and a complete re-theming of Splash Mountain, the popular log-flume ride based on the controversial 1946 animated feature Song of the South. Smaller changes include jettisoning elements from classic attractions, such as the “wench auction” scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, which was updated in 2018.

The backlash from a significant faction of Disneyland diehards—that the company had caved to political correctness at the expense of the park’s classic attractions—was swift.

disneyland wench auction
Pirates of the Caribbean’s “wench auction” got a reboot in 2018.

Jeff Gritchen/Orange County Register via Getty Images

“If you’d like to see those classic attractions as they have been, we highly recommend that you make that trip soon,” wrote WDW Pro, a high-profile blogger for Pirates & Princesses, an independent news and opinion website covering developments at Disney theme parks. “Disney is convinced they need to get rid of Br’er Rabbit and all the other things they’ve deemed too controversial.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, others assert that Disney’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusion across race, gender, and sexuality didn’t go far enough. In a review of Disneyland’s revamped Snow White’s Enchanted Wish ride for SFGate, writers Julie Tremaine and Katie Dowd puzzled over the attraction’s finale, which showcases the pivotal moment in the 1937 animated film when Prince Charming plants a kiss on the slumbering Snow White.

“Haven’t we already agreed that consent in early Disney movies is a major issue? That teaching kids that kissing, when it hasn’t been established if both parties are willing to engage, is not OK?” Tremaine and Dowd wrote.

Their article set off an avalanche of outrage. “Woke ladies, let me be the first to inform you of something,” wrote Republican strategist and columnist Alicia Preston. “Had the prince not kissed her, she would be dead. You’re so woke, you don’t want Snow White to awaken.” (In the film, Snow White is portrayed as asleep, not dead.) Preston went on to accuse activists like Tremaine and Dowd of “killing our art” to further their own polarizing political agenda.

Because of its prominence, Disney often finds itself trapped in the middle of the culture wars, even as it assiduously tries to avoid controversial or polarizing subjects. Despite its squeaky-clean family image, Disney was one of the earliest companies to recognize gay domestic partners and has promoted “gay days” at its parks.

But the company’s record of removing visible biases at the parks hasn’t always been a priority. In the earliest years of Disneyland’s operations, Black employees were relegated exclusively to behind-the-scenes roles and were not permitted to interact with guests, a policy that wasn’t rescinded until 1968. In 2012, a Muslim employee in one of Disneyland’s hotels sued the Walt Disney Company, alleging she was subjected to anti-Muslim harassment by colleagues and was asked not to wear a hijab because it would “negatively affect patrons’ experiences,” according to the federal complaint.

Meg Willoughby Tweedy, 58, grew up less than a mile from Disneyland in Anaheim. Both her brother and her father worked at the park. She never did.  “When I was growing up, they had size limits for cast members,” she says. “I was a size 18. Costumes didn’t go to that size. You never saw overweight people, tattoos, or beards.”

Song of the South remains one of the most deeply embedded thorns in Disney’s side when it comes to its record on racial sensitivity. Political protests of the film have persisted for as long as it has existed. An adaptation of the Uncle Remus collection of short stories compiled from Southern Black oral folklore, Song of the South’s animated animal characters employ contrived Black vernacular that critics say perpetuates negative racial stereotypes. The original Splash Mountain ride debuted in 1989, more than 40 years after the film’s theatrical release; in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Disney announced it would redevelop the attraction based on the 2009 animated feature The Princess and the Frog, the company’s first picture to feature a predominantly Black cast of characters.

Kendra Burns-Edel, 31, a Democratic political consultant in Southern California and avid visitor, speculates that Disney’s reboot is more a product of economics than idealism. “Disney fans range from 90 years old to babies; but the kids these days are way more woke than previous generations. It’s a profitability decision. Disney recognizes it’s more profitable to be positive about diversity.”

A 2020 report by the Center for Scholars & Storytellers at UCLA found that bringing “authentic diversity” to films can significantly improve box-office performance. The report estimated that a $159 million film lacking diversity will lose $32.2 million in first-weekend box office sales, with a potential loss of $130 million overall. Disney’s embrace of diversity-boosting measures indicates executives know which way the cultural winds are blowing, including at its parks, which account for more than 16 percent of the company’s revenues.

Disney’s film development arm has already made efforts to feature characters of color in positive roles, like Moana (Polynesian) in the 2016 film of the same name; Miguel (Mexican) in 2017’s Coco; and Raya, an amalgam of Southeast Asian cultures, in this year’s Raya and the Last Dragon. Meanwhile, Disney films with female protagonists have moved away from motivations couched in fairytale romance. “No one should be surprised that the rides are changing because the movies are changing,” says Burns-Edel. Referencing the female protagonist of the Frozen franchise, who many in the LGBTQ community speculate is same-sex-oriented due to her palpable disinterest in men, she adds: “Elsa’s a lesbian now!”

While the commentariat trades barbs online, Disneyland’s true diehards—a number of whom are, counterintuitively, annual-pass-holding adults, some childless, who frequent Disneyland as often as every weekend—don’t seem to take much umbrage at the changes. “I never understood why they created a ride that is based on a movie they pretend doesn’t exist,” says Kylene Kemple, 38, who lives in Las Vegas but has visited the park every other month since she was a child.

As for threats of boycotts from Disneylanders who decry the park’s perceived woke-ification, they seem unlikely given the enormous sentimental pull that Disney’s parks exert over the public. Jonathan Van Boskerck, a Republican deputy district attorney from Las Vegas, made ripples with an April 2021 op-ed in The Orlando Sentinel in which he claimed “wokeness” was ruining the overall experience at Disney parks. “That’s a mood killer,” he lamented. Van Boskerck expressed similar dissatisfaction with the relaxation of the parks’ employee dress code, allowing cast members, for the first time, to sport visible tattoos and gender-inclusive hairstyles and clothing choices.

“The problem is, I’m not traveling across the country and paying thousands of dollars to watch someone I do not know express themselves,” Van
Boskerck wrote. “I am there for the immersion and the fantasy, not the reality of a stranger’s self-expression.” The op-ed launched a thousand withering memes. “This guy doesn’t want Disney World; he wants Westworld,” Twitter user @ThomBoyD tweeted at the Sentinel in response.

Burns-Edel doubts Van Boskerck’s personal boycott. “He still goes, I guarantee it,” she says. “For better or worse, Disneyland is kind of cultish. Anyone who feels as nostalgic about it as I do, those people aren’t going to stop going because they took one character out of Pirates of the Caribbean.”

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