Amid DeSantis Feud, Are Disney Parks Becoming More Inclusive?

As it wages a culture war with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Disney appears to be leaning into values embracing diversity and inclusion. But are all visitors really feeling more welcome during this new Disney era?

Tomorrowland arch, Walt Disney World Florida

The Disney experience is an eternally evolving one.

Photo by Brian McGowan/Unsplash

In the past, Disney had a reputation for producing over-polished fairy tales and glossing over controversy in order to present the shiniest, most palatable version of happily ever after. Now, exactly 100 years after the Walt Disney Company was founded, Disney finds itself tackling controversy head-on as it engages in a heated battle with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The feud first ramped up in spring 2022, when Disney publicly condemned Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Bill, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill (which bans teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity).

In the year since, Disney has opted to take a stand at a time when Disney viewers and theme park visitors have come to expect better representation—not just culturally but also in terms of body image, physical ability, sexual orientation, and mental health. I grew up with a much less diverse Disney and had never expected much depth from the brand that turned Grimm’s Fairy Tales into aspirational narratives. But as Disney and Pixar began releasing films that were less about falling for Prince Charming and more about confronting challenging emotions (Inside Out) and intergenerational trauma (Encanto), I realized that I didn’t have to settle for the shallow fables of the past. It’s no longer too much to ask for a female lead who’s more muscular than slender, or who struggles with depression, or who falls in love with someone other than a cisgender male.

Even before the DeSantis battle, the Disney theme parks in the United States had been evolving with the times, along with the Disney brand as a whole. But how far has Disney come, really? And in what areas does Disney still fall short in terms of creating a truly welcoming environment for those who work at and visit the parks?

Progress at the Disney theme parks

The Walt Disney Company has garnered a lot of attention—both positive and negative—for the adjustments Disneyland Resort in Southern California and Walt Disney World in Florida have made to be more inclusive and sensitive to today’s social standards. For instance, in 2018, the redheaded animatronic figure on Pirates of the Caribbean ride stopped appearing as auctionable property and now leads the auction herself. (Today, the lots are pilfered chickens and rum, not hostage women.) This past fall, Disneyland added a doll in a wheelchair to the It’s a Small World ride, and in March, the same ride at Magic Kingdom in Florida received the same addition.

In recent years, there were also revisions to the ever-sexualized Jessica Rabbit on a classic Toontown ride; the racially insensitive portrayal of Indigenous people on the Jungle Cruise; and, of course, the hotly contested Splash Mountain revamp. Originally themed after a cartoon set in a romanticized Jim Crow South, the log flume ride is now closed in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom to instead draw from The Princess and the Frog, a movie about a Black woman who works night and day to realize her dream of opening a hit restaurant in New Orleans. On May 31, 2023, Southern California’s version of the ride closed and will follow suit.

But some of the most significant efforts in the theme parks have been far less visible than updates to fan-favorite rides. Disney World’s Epcot has long used the World Showcase part of the park to highlight the architecture, cuisine, and arts of 11 different countries, even collaborating with the Moroccan government to ensure the pavilion’s mosaic art adhered to Islamic traditions. Whether or not it’s appropriate to have Minnie Mouse in a traditional Chinese qipao is up for debate, but I will say this: Standing in the Mitsukoshi Department Store in the Japan pavilion is the closest I’ve felt to being back in Tokyo with the Donki shopping experience.

Dancers and musicians celebrate Día de los Muertos at Disney California Adventure

From September to early November, Disneyland guests can celebrate Día de los Muertos in Plaza de la Familia at Disney California Adventure, inspired by the Disney and Pixar movie Coco.

Richard Harbaugh/Disneyland Resort

Disneyland’s Disney California Adventure park has begun stepping up to Epcot’s standards by hosting an array of events that celebrate cultures and traditions from around the world, including an ode to Día de los Muertos in October and a Lunar New Year festival that avoids conflating Asian cultures by providing distinctly different descriptions and activities for Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean interpretations of the holiday. This June, the festivities will spread to Disneyland proper when it hosts Pride Nite for the first time, promising dance parties, a cavalcade with “Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, and their friends dressed in special attire,” and themed snacks specific to the special event.

More impressively, though, Disney California Adventure uses all of its assets to reflect the diversity depicted in Disney, Pixar, and Marvel films. During a visit in early 2023, one Mexican American family was tickled to see Mickey ears shaped like conchas, a sweet bread commonly found in Mexican bakeries. “We always like seeing the Día de Los Muertos stuff,” said the mother of two. “But I wasn’t expecting to see so much Coco at this time of year.”

Indeed, Coco’s Miguel appears all over the Disney California Adventure park—on boardwalk decor, on retail merchandise, in music playing throughout the day—as do Chinese Canadian Mei from Turning Red, Shuri from Black Panther, and the titular Southeast Asian protagonist from Raya and the Last Dragon. Changing a ride entails one big decision; changing the density of representation throughout an entire theme park involves several smaller decisions over a longer period of time, which goes a lot further in normalizing depictions of ethnic diversity.

Opportunities to do more

For all the praise that Epcot and Disney California Adventure have garnered for their diversity efforts, there is arguably work still ahead for the more classic theme parks. The Disneyland park in Anaheim skirts many representation opportunities by focusing on iconography (silhouettes of Sleeping Beauty’s castle at the center of the park, the calligraphy-inspired “D” in the Disneyland logo) and nonhuman characters, such as Donald Duck, Tigger, and the alien Stitch. As a result, the landscape no longer feels quite so dominated by unrealistically thin, blonde princesses, but it also doesn’t feel like an accurate reflection of Disney’s 2023 audience.

We asked the aforementioned mother about Fantasyland’s Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique makeovers, which transform children into their favorite Disney characters. The options now extend beyond Cinderella and Rapunzel to the Polynesian Moana, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, and Colombian Mirabel from Encanto. “The girls are a little old for that now,” she said about her daughters, who are 13 and 19. “And they’re bigger on Moana than Encanto.” But having the choice available? “Yeah, it’s nice.”

The same boutique stocks a magic carpet wheelchair wrap for aspiring princesses who choose to emulate Jasmine from Aladdin. The shopDisney website sells adaptive costumes for additional characters, but in Disneyland, children in wheelchairs have the grand total of one option, leaving a bit more to be desired.

Three Black performers raise their hands on stage

Musical ensemble Midnight Hour honors influential Black musicians as part of Disneyland’s Celebrate Soulfully programming.

Disneyland Resort/Christian Thom

Both the Florida and California properties also featured relatively subtle Celebrate Soulfully experiences during Black History Month, advertising specialty dishes and live music from Black performers, but presenting nowhere near the takeover that occurs with other festivals. I happened to be at Disney California Adventure in mid-February, at the tail end of Lunar New Year and halfway through Black History Month. During my time there, I saw a parade with lion dancers, a fountain show about returning home for the new year, and half a dozen stalls with Asian and Asian-inspired snacks, but nothing about Celebrate Soulfully in the park itself. A handful of menu items at the Hearthstone Lounge in the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa and live music in Downtown Disney provided the entirety of my Celebrate Soulfully experience, which was frankly disappointing. In June 2023, additional Celebrate Soulfully events will showcase Black Music Month in the parks.

Another area of opportunity for Disney Parks lies with the LGBTQ community. After then-CEO Bob Chapek came under fire for an unsatisfying response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill in early 2022, the Walt Disney Company made quick work of mending fences, donating all profits from the Disney Pride Collection to several organizations that support LGBTQ communities and even receiving praise from GLAAD for increased representation in films like Strange World.

That said, that on-screen representation has yet to make its way to Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Right now, rainbows are the most the parks have to offer—rainbow Pride pins, rainbow mouse ears, rainbow cakes, you name it. Speaking only for myself as a bisexual woman: The multicolored stripes feel half-hearted. Give me a shirt with two women holding hands, or a pin with two men embracing each other as more than just friends. There are princes kissing princesses throughout Fantasyland; give some of the same weight to same-sex and nonbinary romances as has been given to straight couples over the past 100 years of the company’s existence.

“Disneyland will never be completed”

As modifications to Tomorrowland lingered long after Disneyland’s 1951 opening, a reporter asked when Disneyland would be finished. Walt Disney’s famous response was, “Disneyland will never be completed,” which has become the company’s mantra in regards to the innovations that become possible as technology advances over time. But the quote seems just as relevant when discussing inclusivity in the Disney theme parks today.

There will always be more work to do. In an article about change management, the Harvard Business Review describes people’s common fear that change “will take from me things I value.” Imagine getting more than 200,000 employees to agree on the things they value, what is or isn’t being taken away, and applying those myriad perspectives to a diversity, equity, and inclusion plan. That’s not an excuse, but a stark reality of operating a massive global corporation.

What constitutes “enough” or “acceptable” becomes a matter of personal opinion. Is it OK to be satisfied when the brand’s social growth falls short of perfection? If you’ve never been big on Disney in the first place, the notion of them trying to be better probably doesn’t feel like enough—to quote Yoda, “Do or do not. There is no try.” If you grew up on Mickey Mouse, you’re probably more lenient.

I admit to falling into the latter camp. There is so much more for Disney Parks to do, but there’s also so much they’ve done and continue to work towards. For as long as their ongoing inclusivity efforts persist, I, for one, will keep believing that they’ll get better.

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