Most mornings I wake up to Disney news that makes me smile. I have a close circle of friends that text each other the Disney news of the day and we geek out on things most of the world doesn’t even know the relevance of. This morning’s Disney news is relevant to everyone. It’s a shame that’s the case, but it’s true. There are plenty of people on both sides of this discussion. Let’s dig in.
The Orlando Sentinel published an op-ed on how Disney World is ruining the experience by changing popular attractions to reflect shifts in cultural norms. I don’t know anything about the author of the piece, just the words he wrote. The nickel version is he thinks Disney is caving to cultural changes and ruining the park experience by removing elements that may be offensive to some folks. It would be easy to just dismiss the comments as a whole, but I rarely take the easy path. Instead, I gave some thought to a handful of the views expressed. Such as:
Recently, Disney announced that cast members are now permitted to display tattoos, wear inclusive uniforms and display inclusive haircuts. Disney did all of this in the name of allowing cast members to express themselves. The problem is, I’m not traveling across the country and paying thousands of dollars to watch someone I do not know express themselves. I am there for the immersion and the fantasy, not the reality of a stranger’s self-expression. I do not begrudge these people their individuality and I wish them well in their personal lives, but I do not get to express my individuality at my place of business.
The author doesn’t like tattoos. I don’t have any tattoos myself (I hate needles), and I don’t plan on getting one anytime soon. But, I can’t even imagine I’ll notice or care if someone in Galaxy’s Edge has a visible tattoo the next time I show up. I guess the argument he’s making is that nobody on Batuu (the fictional Star Wars land Disney created for Galaxy’s Edge) has tattoos? This is probably the clearest way to illustrate the author’s ignorance. He thinks there are no tattoos on Batuu. And, someone with a tattoo probably thinks there are, in fact, tattooed folks hanging out at Halycon, the new Starcruiser coming to Disney World soon.
Additionally, everyone has “normal” haircuts on Batuu? In the author’s version of the world, that may be true. In the real world, that’s not the case. And, it may very well not be true in the galaxy far, far away in an imaginary land. Let’s keep going:
Disney is in the process of taking the woke scalpel to the Jungle Cruise. Trader Sam is out because he might offend certain people. Every grown-up in the room realizes that Trader Sam is not a representation of reality and is meant as a funny and silly caricature. It is no more based in racism than every Disney caricature of an out-of-touch white American dad.
Hey, I’m all for caricatures of out-of-touch white American dads. The author of that op-ed seems to be one. Heck, I’m one. My kids frequently tell me what’s cool and what’s not. Just in case you don’t know who Trader Sam is, here’s a look:
On the subject of Disney World’s Trader Sam, and it might just be me, but I feel this version looked too cartoony anyway. https://t.co/59ke1wAfRU pic.twitter.com/bbv1tPrHse
— Puppetstreamers (@puppetstreamers) April 6, 2021
Here’s a news flash. Trader Sam never bothered me on the Jungle Cruise ride. I’m betting it didn’t bother a lot of people who rode it over the years before Sam disappeared recently. None of that is really the point. Disney made the decision that it may offend some folks, and I’m sure they’re right. Is the ride forever ruined because Trader Sam is removed? No. The next generation of kids that visit Disney World will be no less amazed by the land Walt imagined because Sam exited stage right. Thankfully, the line will likely be one person shorter because the author won’t be riding it anymore. He’ll be too busy lamenting how the ride is forever ruined:
The next time I ride Jungle Cruise I will not be thinking about the gloriously entertaining puns of the skippers, I will be thinking about Disney’s political agenda. That’s a mood killer.
Boy, he’s really going to have a rough go the next time he visits the happiest place on Earth. He’s pretty bummed about Pirates of the Caribbean, too:
Pirates used to be one of my favorite attractions. My family would always ride it first on our first day at the Magic Kingdom. Now, we do not even ride it every trip. When my family rides Pirates now, each of the changed scenes takes us out of the illusion because they remind us of reality and the politics that forced the changes.
Apparently, the fact that Pirates of Caribbean no longer depicts women being shackled and sold to men at auctions has ruined the experience for his entire family. I have a teenage daughter. She’s ridden Pirates of the Caribbean many times. I don’t think she believes her place in life is to be shackled and sold at auction. Maybe I’m a bad parent for not asking? That specific scene now depicts a red-haired woman standing up to a pirate. Did I laugh at the old scene? Probably, yeah. Do I like the new one? Yup. It must be pretty depressing for the author to live in a world where a change like this just has them seeing red.
The Final Two Pennies
I’m fully aware that some of the folks who read this will roll their eyes and squawk at me or move on. For the rest of the people who are puzzled, annoyed, enraged (or fill-in-the-blank) with this author’s op-ed, you probably nodded your heads through parts of the article, maybe even thought I should condemn more forcefully the thoughts expressed by him. Disney World is a world of imagination, of immersion, of expression. For long periods of time, that was a carefully (narrowly) defined vision of expression.
For decades, a young African American girl visiting Disney couldn’t find a princess with skin color like hers, despite seeing millions of people that looked just her, walking around the very theme park her parents were creating dreams for her in. Then, Tiana came along. For a couple years, she was my daughter’s favorite princess. Then, it was Ariel. Eventually, it switched back to Tiana, then on to Merida. Our daughter never thought of Tiana as the black princess. She was a princess, just like all the others.
The author of this op-ed gets hung up on old stereotypes that make them feel comfortable. And, I think the author goes out of their way not to overly criticize Disney’s decision to re-theme Splash Mountain. Maybe they realize that criticizing a change away from a theme that has obvious racist tones in favor of one more inclusive is a line too far to cross in the article? The harshest criticism is reserved for those visible tattoos and Trader Sam as opposed to the dog whistles normally associated with concerns over skin color.
At the end of the day, my two pennies are pretty simple. Don’t waste time thinking about the views expressed in this op-ed on your next trip to Disney World. Celebrate the imagination and the innovation. And, celebrate a place that’s more inclusive today than it was yesterday.
As a former Disney employee (8 years with Imagineering and 12 years with the Parks including one year as a Jungle Cruise skipper), may I add my nickel to this conversation?
In my experience, most all Disney artists and designers – past and present – feel a profound responsibility as storytellers, especially to the children in their audiences. They believe it is an honor to introduce young people to stories that teach traditional values, such as love, loyalty, compassion – and, yes, inclusiveness. Exhibit A: “it’s a small world.”
Certainly, there have been numerous examples of what can now be considered missteps – from the chorus of crows in “Dumbo” to the tribe in “Peter Pan.” The theme parks also have hosted their share of stereotypes: Many long-time Disneyland visitors can remember when Aunt Jemima greeted guests in front of the Frontierland breakfast restaurant sponsored by the maker of the (recently renamed) pancake mix.
Disney’s current updates are by no means unprecedented in the company’s history. (As far back as 1948, a character depicting a stereotyped Jewish peddler was deleted from the classic cartoon, “The Three Little Pigs.”)
I would argue that the artists who created the now-outdated characters did not intend to be mean or hurtful. Their humor reflected the jokes and prevailing cultural norms of the time. (It is said that humor is how human beings cope with things that make them uncomfortable, from the fear of death to the mistrust of people perceived to be outside one’s tribe. But that’s another discussion for another forum.)
About 11 years ago, I happened to be walking around Disneyland the week Tiana, from “The Princess and the Frog” was making her debut at the park. As it happened, she was meeting and greeting guests just steps away from where Aunt Jemima made her appearances many decades earlier. As I watched the scene, a young Black girl, maybe 7 or 8 years old, ran up to Tiana and threw her arms around the Disney princess. They were surrounded by other little girls – of every ethnicity found in Southern California – eager to take their turn. The children’s eyes were full of love – and my own eyes misted up at the scene.
Like Walt Disney, many of us prefer to believe that people are basically good and, given a healthy, positive upbringing, will make good choices in life. That’s a legacy I hope The Walt Disney Company continues to honor, even if it means bidding farewell to Trader Sam and his shrunken skulls.
Very well said. I don’t think any of the existing items being tagged for changes were cast with bad intentions. They were absolutely in line with cultural norms at the time.
I was watching a movie from the 80s the other night with our teenage daughter. The movie used some slang terms for a specific group of people that’s no longer acceptable in today’s society. We had a brief conversation with our daughter about the term in question and then finished watching the movie.
I didn’t realize that term was in the movie before we decided to watch it. I just had feel good memories from watching it when I was younger. If I had known the term was in the movie, I wouldn’t have eliminated it from consideration to show our kids. Rather, I would have chosen to have a conversation ahead of time.
I’m sure Disney has had those conversations internally and are now making changes to reflect those new cultural norms.
Really appreciate your perspective. Thanks for weighing in!