Mouse Trapped: How Disney Became the Latest Casualty in America’s Culture Wars

Disney’s new CEO was determined to steer the company away from partisan politics. Instead he’s turned it into the unhappiest place on earth.

IF BOB CHAPEK’S career was a ride at Disneyland, the climb to the top would take 28 years, and the stomach-churning plunge to the bottom would last just about three days.

The 61-year-old Disney CEO, known among the studio’s rank and file for his deep understanding of the business, no-nonsense demeanor, and unparalleled expertise with systems management—not to mention his kind of adorable resemblance to Felonius Gru, the shiny-headed master thief in Universal’s Despicable Me movies—may well be the unluckiest mogul in Hollywood. 

For starters, he had the misfortune of succeeding Bob Iger, the polished, well-liked, creative-friendly chief executive who reigned over one of the most financially and artistically successful eras in Disney history. Iger’s accomplishments during his 15-year tenure were so staggering—greenlighting monster hit after monster hit, growing the company with a series of brand-expanding acquisitions like Pixar, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, and 20th Century Fox—Chapek really had no place to go but down.

You know who else wanted to keep politics out of Disney? A guy named Walt.

And, boy, does he seem to be going down, cursed by a series of misfortunes graver than anything Maleficent could conjure in her most wicked spells.

On February 25, 2020, after nearly three decades of climbing the corporate ladder—first as director of marketing in the home-video division, then as president of consumer products, and then as head of parks and resorts—Chapek was finally handed the keys to the castle. But within days of taking command as CEO, as if foreshadowing disasters to come, a boat on the Jungle Cruise ride sunk. Then two PeopleMovers in Tomorrowland collided, the Haunted Mansion malfunctioned and had to be closed for several days, and the Doom Buggies on the Omnimover also went on the fritz. No injuries were reported in any of these incidents, but the snickering headlines made Chapek’s first week in office something less than idyllic.

Of course, all of that was nothing compared with the catastrophe coming just a week later. On March 15, the pandemic put the whole country, including movie theaters and amusement parks, into lockdown, clamping shut virtually all of Disney’s revenue streams with the exception of its cable-TV channels and newly launched Disney+ streaming service. Suddenly, the man in charge of the biggest, most successful entertainment conglomerate in the world found himself ordering executive pay cuts and worker furloughs.

Supporters of DeSantis’s Don’t Say Gay law at a rally outside Disney World in Orlando this year; at another rally in Orlando, protestors urge Disney to publicly speak out against the bill. (REUTERS/OCTAVIO JONES)

Obviously, none of the above was Chapek’s fault—it was just a biblical-like flood of bad fortune. But the next disaster, the biggest of all and possibly the most dangerous threat Disney has ever faced—certainly the largest PR fiasco in the company’s history—was something Chapek might have avoided. This past March, when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a new piece of legislation forbidding schools from teaching sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade—the so-called Don’t Say Gay law—Chapek declined to push back, despite Disney World being one of the state’s largest employers. “Corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds,” he wrote in a statement to employees, explaining his attempt at principled neutrality. 

That limp response infuriated many of Disney’s gay and trans staffers, who staged walkouts over what they saw as their leader’s fecklessness in the face of an assault on their civil rights. Within a few weeks, Chapek flip-flopped, issuing a new message openly advocating against the Florida law. That, in turn, triggered the Conservative right, putting Chapek and his company in the crosshairs of DeSantis and his QAnon goons, many of whom already believed Disney was part of a global pedophilia conspiracy to turn children gay. They quickly launched a national boycott.

They saw an erection in The Little Mermaid, the word “sex” spelled out in a cloud of dust in The Lion King . . .

Throughout this past spring, the battle continued to heat up, with Florida passing additional legislation stripping Orlando’s Disney World of its tax breaks and revoking the special self-governing status that has permitted the theme park to police itself for the last 50 years. Meantime, here in California, Disney’s Burbank complex became ground zero for a series of demonstrations by both the far left and far right. One week, scores of gay and trans protesters, many of them employees, marched near the giant mouse ears at the Disney gate on Alameda Avenue, waving placards pleading for Disney to “Protect LGBTQ+ Rights.” Another week, hundreds of anti-Disney activists gathered at the  same spot, blasting Christian rock from the back of flatbed trucks and waving “Don’t Tread on Me” signs, their rage fueled by coverage on Fox News, which ran dozens of stories on the protests over just one weekend. 

Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Chapek and Executive Chairman Bob Iger at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, 2021. (GERARDO MORA/GETTY IMAGES)

And squeezed in the middle of it all, ensconced in his 6th-floor C-suite in the Seven Dwarfs Building on the Disney lot, no doubt banging his head on his desk, was Chapek, the company-man-turned-CEO, whose only crime had been to try to keep politics out of the Magic Kingdom.

Come to think of it, unlucky doesn’t even begin to cover it. 

You know who else wanted to keep politics out of Disney? A guy named Walt.

Back in 1947, Walt Disney—“A silent Republican,” according to Bob Gurr, a 90-year-old amusement-ride designer who worked with him for 12 years—testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The man who invented Mickey Mouse took a few swipes at labor unions (he wanted to keep them out of his company as well) and then offered assurances about his studio’s vigilance over its all-American content. 

“We watch so that nothing gets into the films that would be harmful in any way to any group or any country,” he told the committee. “We have large audiences of children and different groups, and we try to keep them as free from anything that would offend anybody as possible. We work hard to see that nothing of that sort creeps in.”

In retrospect, Walt did a pretty crummy job of monitoring content. Early Disney films like Fantasia, The Jungle Book, Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, and especially Song of the South were full of what would now be considered racist and sexist stereotypes (some of these films are now shown on Disney+ with disclaimers acknowledging their “harmful impact”). Even into the 1980s and early 1990s, films like The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas still contained questionable portrayals. In the original version of 1992’s Aladdin, for instance, the young thief sings about Arabs cutting off ears—“It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home”—before the lyrics got cut for the home video release.

At one point in the 1990s, though, there was a shift in consciousness at Disney—the once-conservative, family values company became woke at a time when the rest of the business community was still in deep REM slumber. Two full decades before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, Disney started extending health-care benefits to gay partners. They also allowed gay and lesbian groups to sponsor a once-a-year Gay Day at Disney World, an unofficial celebration of same-sex relationships that was driving Florida conservatives crazy long before anybody had ever heard of Ron DeSantis. 

This is when the first conservative anti-Disney protests began—and not just in Florida. In 1995, the American Life League, in Virginia, launched a much-covered boycott against the company, mailing out nearly a million cards to supporters claiming that Disney was planting subliminal sex messages in its animated films. They saw an erection in The Little Mermaid, the word “sex” spelled out in a cloud of dust in The Lion King, and a hidden verbal message in Aladdin: Just before the hero whisks Princess Jasmine onto his magic carpet, he supposedly mumbles, “Good teenagers, take off your clothes.” Most people simply heard the words, “Scat, good tiger, take off and go,” but whatever. 

The point here is, the culture war currently embroiling Disney, with all its weird accusations of secret sexual messaging to kids, goes way back.

Of course, these kooky conspiracy theories are figments of overactive, possibly repressed imaginations—honestly, there is no erection in The Little Mermaid. But last March, footage of an internal Disney diversity and inclusion meeting was leaked to prominent conservative activist Christopher Rufo—the take-no-prisoners right-wing agitator famous for his battles against critical race theory—who posted it for his 333,000 Twitter followers. The anti-Disney activists had finally found what they considered to be a smoking gun. The video showed an  animation executive praising Disney’s inclusiveness and talking about adding more gay leads into the company’s programming. 

The conservative media pounced, inaccurately quoting the executive as promising a 50 percent increase in gay characters. Fox News host Laura Ingraham went on the air to accuse Disney of “pushing a sexual agenda” on youngsters. Tucker Carlson took it even further. “They have a sexual agenda for six-year-old children,” he announced on his show. “You’d think that’s illegal in some way. It’s certainly immoral. It’s creepy as hell. And yet they are the country’s leading purveyor of children’s programming. That’s a problem, no?”

The original “wench auction” scene from Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland (Disney has since amended the scene, which is now simply an “auction”) (ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Rufo, who was Carlson’s guest on that evening’s program, declined to be interviewed for this article, but he did send some pretty frank emails explaining what he hoped to achieve by making the video public. “Disney is a powerful symbol for American families and, as such, a perfect target for a symbolic war,” he wrote to Los Angeles. “Our objective is to degrade the Disney brand, inflict measurable damage to the company, and put a price on corporate wokeness—which will serve as a cautionary tale for other executives who might be considering elevating critical race and gender theories into official corporate ideology. We have already accomplished much of this.”

That last sentence is debatable. While Disney, like all media companies, took a huge hit during the pandemic, it’s still a massive operation, valued at nearly $170 billion and has announced a $33 billion budget for content in 2022. 

But Rufo may have a point about one thing. Even within Disney, some have started raising questions about whether the company has grown too woke for its own good. Putting Minnie Mouse in a Hillary Clinton-like pantsuit and banning the words “boys and girls” in park announcements strike even a lot of liberal observers as a tad excessive. It’s not just an issue at Disney; “institutional capture”—when big corporations bend over backward to placate small but radical and politically plugged-in segments of their workforces—has been spreading through the corporate culture of a lot of media companies. But the problem seems especially acute—or maybe it’s simply more visible to the public—at this one. 

“Many normal meetings were canceled to make room for special all-hands Zoom calls about [the Florida] bill,” says one Imagineer who grew so alarmed by the politicking going on at Disney that he wrote an anonymous (and widely shared) post about it for a website called Quillette. “Looking back at my Outlook calendar, over five days I had seven separate meetings that overrode everything else. They were the same formula over and over. They opened with an apologetic executive, followed by a couple of stories of anguish from cast members in the division, followed by a panel of DEI experts and execs promising support and internal changes, and closing with the same apologetic executive vowing to do better.”

According to this Imagineer, the atmosphere at Disney has grown so oppressively sensitive, some employees are fleeing. “There’s the tired adage of the frog and boiling water, and I think it fits here,” he says. “The company has been trending in this direction for a while, but it’s been slow . . . Now, it’s boiling.”

When Ron Desantis runs for president in 2024, as he almost certainly will (unless Donald Trump gets in the way), he can list one dubious achievement above all the rest: he really did invent a better mousetrap.

Of course, Republicans—and, to a lesser degree, Democrats—have been playing the culture-war game for decades, leveraging emotionally charged issues like abortion, gay marriage, and school prayer, to rile up their bases. For the GOP, that grassroots ire has usually been directed at so-called coastal elites—university professors, economists, the mainstream media, government officials, pretty much anybody who believes in climate science. It’s been a deeply cynical but powerfully effective strategy that’s paid off time and time again, most recently last year in the Virginia gubernatorial race, where Republican Glenn Youngkin sailed into office by trashing the curriculum of his state’s school board.

What DeSantis has pulled off, though, is much more clever and far more diabolical. He’s tapped into his red state’s distrust of the establishment, married it to wacko QAnon conspiracy theories about the left’s supposedly gay pedophilia agenda, and aimed all that right-wing angst at a hallowed institution with an outsized profile in Florida. You know, the one in Orlando with Splash Mountain and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.

Exactly when DeSantis first hatched his anti-Disney crusade is unclear, but it might have been sometime last year when he suspended local COVID restrictions, including mask requirements, at amusement parks. Disney World ignored him and kept its mask mandates in place, all but inviting a fight. Or  it could have been last March, when he passed his bill forbidding teachers in Florida from discussing gay or trans issues in elementary schools and kindergartens. (His press secretary described it as an “anti-grooming” measure, yet another dog whistle at the vicious stereotype of gays as child molesters.) DeSantis may not have anticipated the reaction the law would trigger at Disney, but he was certainly savvy enough to take advantage of it. It seemed, in fact, as if he’d laid a trap that unlucky Chapek stumbled right into.

An old poster from Song of the South (LMPC VIA GETTY IMAGES)

“It’s a fair question,” says Marty Kaplan, a former Disney executive and currently a media professor at USC’s  Norman Lear Center, when asked if Chapek had been suckered into a culture brawl by DeSantis. “The Republicans will push this as far as they can. So the challenge for [Democrats] is to not enable this strategy. The Republicans are being disingenuous and deceptive and fanning dangerous flames, and they’re doing it solely for political reasons.”

DeSantis has been pushing it, all right—doubling down on his feud with Chapek by passing more laws in April that take away Disney World’s special tax advantages and void the Reedy Creek Improvement District agreement that, since 1967, has granted the theme park extraordinary powers to build its own roads, open its own fire department, set its own building codes, and run its own wastewater-treatment plants. Sure, it’s a crazy move for Florida from a fiscal point of view. For starters, it may well scuttle Disney’s plans to move a big chunk of its workforce—mainly Imagineers, the creatives who design the theme-park rides and attractions—to Orlando, which would have been a boon to Florida’s economy. It will also force the state to raise taxes in Orange and Osceola counties, where Disney World is located, by at least a billion dollars—the amount of Disney debt Florida will have to assume in order to take over the property. Additionally, the two counties will now be on the hook for all the bills for infrastructure and services that Disney had been picking up all these years. 

On the other hand, Orange and Osceola happen to be Democratic counties, so DeSantis likely doesn’t care.

Two Siamese cats insensitively portrayed as evil in Lady and the Tramp. (UNITED ARCHIVES GMBH/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

“When my 14-year-old or my ten-year-old ask for special privileges, they behave and don’t expect those special privileges when they act like jerks,” says Florida representative and DeSantis-ally Randy Fine, explaining the logic behind the state’s takeover of Disney World territory. “Disney is learning they are a guest in this state.”

So far, DeSantis’s Disney-demonizing strategy seems to be paying off, at least if fundraising is any indication. He’s pulled in more than $105 million for his campaign for reelection in November, a record in Florida politics. But there is a potential downside. Before Disney froze all political contributions in the state in response to the Don’t Say Gay law, it was signing big checks to both Democrats and Republicans, donating a total of $4.5 million in the state. (Even DeSantis got $100,000.) “DeSantis has a lot of money, so maybe he doesn’t need Disney,” notes best-selling mystery author Carl Hiaasen, who lives in Vero Beach. “But there are a lot of politicians in Florida that do.” Including a lot of down-ballot Republicans.

Also, the problem with energizing one’s base with culture-war issues is that it can backfire, energizing your opponent’s base even more and sometimes even splitting your own supporters. And there are some signs of that happening in Florida. Even a dyed-in-the-wool Disney hater like Hiaasen—a liberal who once wrote a whole book, Team Rodent, about Disney’s destructive influence on his home state—has come around to defending the company and particularly its decision to speak out against the Don’t Say Gay legislation. “Anything as outrageous and offensive as this law—that’s provoked so much turmoil nationally—forced Disney to take a stand, even if it didn’t want to,” he says, adding that “The Walt Disney Corporation is going to be around long after Ron DeSantis is gone.” For once, Hiaasen is in complete agreement with The National Review, a conservative bastion for decades, which has also criticized DeSantis’s gaybaiting, with Charles C. W. Cooke describing the Don’t Say Gay battle in an April commentary as “an ugly and ill-conceived mistake” and likening it to a “tantrum.”

According to one Imagineer, the atmosphere at Disney has grown so oppressively sensitive, some employees are fleeing.

So far, three Democratic hopefuls will be competing in August’s Florida primary for the privilege of facing off against DeSantis in November and the chance to repeal his Don’t Say Gay law: former Republican governor-turned-U.S. representative Charlie Crist, Florida agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried, and Florida state senator Annette Taddeo. But whichever one of them ends up being DeSantis’s challenger is almost irrelevant. Because the person DeSantis will really be running against is Disney CEO Bob Chapek.

A Mickey Mouse doll caught in a trap at a rally in support of Florida’s Republican-backed Don’t Say Gay law. (REUTERS/OCTAVIO JONES)

Chapek is not a likely gay rights hero. For one thing, he’s not gay. For another, he’s shown zero interest in politics, aside from the office variety that helped him scale the heights of the Disney company. And even then, Chapek’s skill set appears fairly limited.

His ascension to CEO wasn’t so much a Succession-style corporate knife fight between bloodthirsty competitors as it was a blandly civilized CV bakeoff. Compared with his two assumed rivals for the job—former Disney COO Tom Scaggs and former direct-to-consumer division chairman Kevin Mayer—Chapek simply had the weightier résumé. Which wasn’t terribly surprising considering he had spent two-thirds of his career toiling at the Mouse House. 

In the 1990s and 2000s, he focused on milking as much money as possible out of Disney’s home-video business, developing the studio’s “vault” strategy (strategically withholding certain popular titles from release in order to gin up demand) and then overseeing the transition of Disney’s vast library from VHS to DVD. In 2010, he moved on to Disney’s consumer products, and then, in 2011, was put in charge of the resorts and theme parks, opening Shanghai Disney in 2016 and launching Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at both Disneyland and Disney World in 2019.

Word around the Disney lot is that while Chapek possesses a broad knowledge of the company and is skilled at system implementation, he is not exactly a Henry V-type inspirational leader. Or even an Iger II. He’s said to struggle with people skills, doesn’t fully understand creative psychology, and, in general, is not nearly as much fun to lunch with as was his predecessor. Iger, in fact, would have probably relished Disney’s battle with DeSantis and had certain distinct advantages as a political street fighter—like charm, wit, good looks, and a fierce ally in Zenia Mucha, Disney’s former chief communications officer, a widely feared figure both in and out of Disney. (Chapek’s comm director, Geoff Morrell, was ejected from the job just before this story went to press.)

“Chapek is a good man, but he doesn’t give a shit about being out at Hollywood events, nor does he want profiles of him written up in magazines,” says one Disney executive who didn’t want to be identified. “He certainly isn’t the kind of guy who’s going to write a memoir about his achievements. That’s just not who he is.”

But some within the company maintain that Chapek’s biggest challenge, both as CEO and a political combatant, is that Iger (who published his memoir in 2019) left behind a poison pill that no successor, no matter how gifted or charismatic, could swallow. With one foot out the door, Iger issued a personal pledge to make inclusion and diversity a company priority at Disney, adding new departments focused entirely on equity, giving small but vocal segments of the workforce more power to steer corporate policy to their own agendas. Equally problematic for Chapek is the fact that even after his retirement, Iger never quite left the building, sticking around to second-guess the new boss—tweeting his opposition to the Don’t Say Gay law back when Chapek was still trying to stay out of the fight—and, in general, making a nuisance of himself.

Not surprisingly, Chapek’s own future at Disney is something of an open question at the moment. His contract, for which he was paid $32.5 million last year, expires in 2023. The good news for Chapek is that it seems unlikely Disney’s board of directors would replace him after just three years. The bad news: if the battle with DeSantis escalates to the point where it seriously endangers the company’s bottom line, anything’s possible. But if Chapek can somehow find a way to cool tempers both with the right-wing activists in Florida, who believe he’s the leader of a secret pedophilia cabal, and with the left-wing within his own company, who believe he’s a traitor to the woke movement, then he should come out of this current crisis just fine.

All he needs is a little luck.

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