The Walt Disney Company is an institution that practically every American household knows. A bastion of American creativity and success, founder Walt Disney and the Disney brand have become synonymous with the ideas of family, fantasy, dreams, vacations, and so much more. That reputation is why the company is currently valued at around 91 billion dollars and has remained one of the most enduring cultural exports in the world.
Disney has a very strong external brand to be sure, but I would argue that its strongest loyalties lie internally. When Walt Disney founded the company decades ago, he lovingly called his employees “Cast Members” because they were the force – whether in the animation studios or the theme parks and hotels – that created magic every single day.
But today, the loyalty of the 200,000 cast members that make Disney “the happiest place on Earth” has been jeopardized – and so, too, has the magic that makes Disney so special.
On March 28th, 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill that bans teachers from holding classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity. DeSantis justified the bill by saying that schools have no place educating children on LGBTQ+ issues as part of “woke gender ideology.” Critics of the bill said that the law deliberately targets LGBTQ+ children and their families and seeks to erase their identities and lived experiences. They are right.
I have worked for the Walt Disney Company in the theme parks and hotels division in Anaheim for 23 years. I have been going to the parks at least once a year since I was born in 1980, and I started working at Disney when I turned 17-years-old. For most of my childhood, I never felt that I fit in and was bullied for just being me. Disney had always been a safe and familiar place for me, so I joined the team and I have never left the company since.
Many of my fellow cast members started working for Disney for similar reasons. Whether they were a racial minority, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, or living with some form of physical or mental impairment, they felt loved and celebrated, and they wanted everyone that interacted with the brand to feel the same way.
People come here to work and play because there is literally a place for everyone. Disney’s bylaws rightly reflect that acceptance by codifying that anyone, regardless of background, sexual orientation, race, etc., would not be discriminated against. As cast members, we also expect that everyone – whether they were a new hire or the CEO of the company – to embody that acceptance in both word and action.
I am not part of the LGBTQ+ community, but I know what it is like to be bullied and feel like an outsider. I share this scar with them. It is why I and thousands of other Disney cast members are outraged by what is taking place in Florida and continue to defend the values that make Disney a place of acceptance and love. It is why I am proud of the many employees that demanded better from our executives when they were initially silent on the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Over the years, as a veteran member of the Disneyland Resort, I have come to learn that many of the best things about Disneyland were created, presented, and maintained by someone in the LGBTQ+ community. They are responsible for creating, designing, and executing some of the best entertainment the company has to offer. They are some of the friendliest and most empathetic people that anyone will ever encounter, and they will work tirelessly to make each guest’s dream trip a reality. You cannot have a single experience at the resort without being positively impacted by someone from this community – full-stop.
Of course, they aren’t alone. There are many of us from all walks of life that contribute to the magic. But to act as if an assault on this group is something that Disney should or can ignore is like saying a family shouldn’t defend a family member. Disney would not be what it is without the embedded culture of inclusion; in fact, we had it long before it was “cool” to be inclusive. If Walt Disney Company executives allow outside influence to impact their internal culture, they would be betraying the company’s core values.
Standing up for the LGBTQ+ community is especially important considering the many ways that Disney makes a point to promote – and profit – off LGBTQ+ representation. Most notably is the tradition of “Gay Days,” a non-Disney-sponsored event that happens every year in both California and Florida. For an entire weekend, the company caters its theme parks to the LGBTQ+ community. Identifying cast members take the day off to be a guest and the theme park and surrounding hotels are adorned with pride rainbows.
While Disney does not directly sponsor these days, Disney’s willingness to profit off this community is a political statement within itself. The LGBTQ+ community has allowed the company to cater to its community given Disney’s underlying culture of inclusivity, but that trust has been breached given how the company hesitated to defend LGBTQ+ members from Governor Ron DeSantis’ discriminatory policies.
Disney has been in the crosshairs of politics before. Politicians come in and want to attack the tax breaks and other special exceptions Disney has as if other companies don’t have the same things. Anytime politicians drag Disney through the mud, they do it only to score political points and raise money at the expense of well-meaning, loving people. But at the end of the day, the very same politicians need Disney. They need the jobs that we offer and the joy we bring to their children.
On July 17th, 1955, Walt Disney said: “To all that come to this happy place, welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America… with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”
I cannot speak for the company. I also cannot speak for the LQBTQ+ community. But I can say that people like me – a girl who was once bullied for being different – found solace in Disney for 23 years because of its culture of acceptance and inclusivity. When that culture is threatened, it is time for cast members to speak up. A threat to any one of us is a threat to what makes Disney so magical.