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Controversy, Criticism, and Scandal Around The Walt Disney Company

L.C. David is a freelance writer from Florida whose hobbies include watching others enjoy boat rides, theme park rides, and car rides.

The castle of Disneyland Paris—what scandals and controversies has the company caused?

The castle of Disneyland Paris—what scandals and controversies has the company caused?

What's Disney Done That People Have Considered Wrong?

The Walt Disney Company revolutionized the film industry when it was founded in the 1920s, and has continued to influence and change the world of entertainment, theme parks, and even travel in successive decades. The company is responsible for many positive changes to our world, and millions of people around the globe have happy memories of visiting their theme parks and playing with Disney toys as children (or adults—that's a whole fandom in itself!).

But unfortunately, there have also been topics of controversy and criticism Disney has faced over the years. Some criticism was unfounded while other detractors had fair points. Society and what is considered socially acceptable can change a lot over nearly a century, so it's expected that things the company has produced over the decades may no longer be socially correct. And it hasn't just been about their films; controversy has surrounded the theme parks, employee benefits, their stance on social progressivism, and even regarding Walt Disney himself.

Here are some of the highlights of the problematic moments The Walt Disney Company has faced throughout its history.

The popular ride Splash Mountain is based on the film "Song of the South." Disneyland is currently renovating the ride to no longer be based on the film.

The popular ride Splash Mountain is based on the film "Song of the South." Disneyland is currently renovating the ride to no longer be based on the film.

Film Scandals

Everything we know and love about Disney started with black and white short films in the 1920s, often starring the beloved Mickey Mouse. Then, in 1937, the studio released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first, full-length, animated feature film. So, since our love for Disney started with films, let's talk about scandals around movies first.

Song of the South (1946)

If you've never seen (or even heard of) this movie, there's a good reason why. It has not been released on home video and is one of the few films not available for streaming on Disney+.

This film is both animated and live-action and was extremely popular during its initial release. The film adapts the tales of Uncle Remus—a character meant to be reflective of the challenges Black Americans living on plantations faced during the Reconstruction Era—from journalist and author Joel Chandler Harris.

The ride Splash Mountain at Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and Tokyo Disneyland is themed after the movie. It has remained one of the most beloved and popular rides at the parks despite the controversy.

So, why won't they release the movie? Disney claims that the movie is problematic for today's audiences because of the stereotypical and controversial ways the characters are depicted. The movie contains racial overtones and innuendos that were seen as problematic even when it was released, but have faced increased scrutiny as the decades have gone by.

Disneyland California's Splash Mountain ride is currently under renovation, and when it reopens in late 2024, will be based on the popular 2009 film The Princess and the Frog. The film featured Disney's first Black princess, Tiana.

Aladdin (1992)

In what turned out to be a tempest in a teapot, some claimed that Aladdin told princess Jasmine's pet tiger, "Good teenagers take off their clothes." In reality, the actual line was "Come on...good kitty, take off and go," at least according to Controversapedia. The original VHS release has the line people complained about—it was also in the theatrical release, but people didn't start noticing it until they were able to replay the line at home—but Disney has gone in and changed it for the DVD and further releases.

The Lion King (1994)

In what also turned out to be (probably) a non-issue, overeager viewers of this movie claimed to see the word S-E-X spelled out in dust swirling around in the background of Simba, Pumbaa, and Timon laying and looking at a nighttime sky. Animators claimed that S-F-X was what was actually spelled out, a reference to the animation company. In later copies of the movie, it was removed altogether.

The Little Mermaid (1989)

In the original release of The Little Mermaid, there was some controversy as well. People claimed to notice the priest marrying Prince Eric and the witch was showing a bit of "male excitement" which actually seemed to be well-founded. An examination of the original VHS release does show a suspicious lump for a few frames.

Other criticisms included the resemblances to male anatomy found in the architecture of the castle's towers, especially on the cover of the VHS tape. Even though these allegations were dismissed, Disney did change the scenes in future releases.

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The Rescuers

This criticism also turned out to have some merit. In a background scene of The Rescuers were two photographs depicting unclothed women. Disney quietly removed the offensive material and released a version without it.

The first five Disney princesses were explicitly white. It wasn't until Aladdin in 1992 that a film with a princess took place outside of Europe.

The first five Disney princesses were explicitly white. It wasn't until Aladdin in 1992 that a film with a princess took place outside of Europe.

Lack of Racial Diversity

One of the criticisms of the Disney cast of characters is that, up until recently, they were all glaringly white. Even the theme park rides that promoted diversity still seemed to glorify Caucasian values and features.

Just take a ride on the very popular It's A Small World and you'll notice that, though you're on a trip through the world, all of the characters continue to have Caucasian-looking eyes and facial features. Criticism about this has not led to any changes. At this point, the ride is such a classic that there would likely be riots if they tried to change it.

Up until the past decade, Disney's heroes and heroines were also very visibly white, sending messages of white privilege and standards of beauty whether intentional or now.

In the 1990s changes began. Disney introduced characters like Pocahontas and Mulan. The animation studio went through a generally lackluster period during the early 2000s but found massive success with animated films again starting in 2009 with The Princess and the Frog—featuring the first Black princess, Tiana.

Since then they've introduced Moana (Moana) who is Polynesian, Raya (Raya and the Last Dragon) from Southeast Asia, Maribel (Encanto) from Colombia, and Hiro (Big Hero 6) who comes from a fictional world blending San Francisco with Tokyo.

Same-Sex Couples on Screen

Disney made very little fuss about their first same-sex couple on their popular Disney Channel show Good Luck Charlie back in 2014. In the show, Charlie's parents argue over the name of one of their daughter's playmate's mom. They each remember it differently. When the doorbell rings the problem is discovered. The friend has two moms and each parent had met a different one.

As you can guess, the nonchalant way that Disney treated the incident and the normalizing of a same-gender couple had some conservative groups who are against same-sex marriage up in arms. Calls were made to boycott both the show and channel and the five-year-old star even received death threats, according to the Daily Mail.

More recently, they've attracted similar criticism for same-sex affection in films like Lightyear; it was ultimately banned throughout the Arab world and parts of Asia for depicting a kiss between two women. Disney declined to cut the scenes in order to have the film released in more territories.

Reinforcing Patriarchal Culture

Many of the Disney films supported and reinforced ideas of a patriarchal society, subconsciously or not. Ideas and tropes around women needing to be rescued and that only a man can do it, or that women are built to cook and clean are scattered relentlessly throughout their films.

Princesses in Disney movies of the 1990s like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast could be smart and show more autonomy, but they still needed to be pretty and above all, find and marry a man.

More recently, Disney animated films have worked to change these tropes. Frozen, released in late 2013, broke all those stereotypes and even self-referenced them in scenes. There's even a brief sighting of a two-dad family. The film focused more on the relationship between the two princesses that are sisters, Anna and Elsa, and how they work together to save their kingdom. The film was an unprecedented success and definitely signaled to Disney that audiences were ready for more female characters like Anna and Elsa.

The following video by MsMojo takes a look at the history and evolution of Disney's female characters, beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 up to 2021 with Raya and the Last Dragon.

Benefits to Same Gender Partners

Disney has been a generally progressive company as far as equal rights for same-sex couples, though their policy of inclusion didn't sit well with everyone. In 1997, and for eight years after that, the Southern Baptist Convention called for the boycott of all things Disney: movies, theme parks, and TV shows. The leaders claimed that Disney's policies were not family-friendly.

Eventually, in June of 2005, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to end the boycott even though the Disney policies had not changed. They warned Disney the organization was keeping an eye on the company's output.

LGBTQ+ Legislation

Controversy arose again in 2022 between Disney and the state of Florida over a bill passed and widely referred to as 'Don't Say Gay.' Florida politicians passed the bill attempting to limit the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. Disney, which is a major player in the Florida economy due to the presence of Walt Disney World, came out against the bill and even signed a statement from the Human Rights Campaign opposing it.

Ron DeSantis, the state's governor and a supporter of the legislation, revoked Disney's "independent special district" that allowed the company to essentially run the theme park and surrounding areas like a county government.

Disabled Ride and Attraction Access

After it was discovered in 2013 that some well-to-do New York families were buying access to bypass lines, Disney had to change its policy for disabled persons.

Well-to-do families were hiring disabled tour guides to pose as family members. Then, the family was given a disability access card allowing them to skip the lines at popular rides and shows. While the disabled person was paid well by the family, Disney felt that there needed to be a change to the program. In late 2013 a new program was implemented that required more verification, a fast pass type voucher, and more questions.

But this change caused controversy as well. Guests with invisible disabilities (autism, chronic illnesses, etc.) were now facing more questions. Many disabled guests felt that the process had become much harder and more unpleasant for them and their entire families.

Fixing one problem led to a different one. Disney will likely continue revising its policy as the need arises.

Alligator Problems

With the tragic passing of Lane Graves at Walt Disney World due to an alligator attack, there has been closer scrutiny as to just how many alligators are on Disney property. The answer seems to be quite a few.

Anecdotal guest stories of seeing others feeding gators around the lagoon where the boy was snatched have surfaced online. And Inside Edition released a video from 2009 of an employee trying to get an alligator to move along very close to where guests were riding Splash Mountain.

Since Disney is in Florida and on a swamp, getting rid of alligators may be close to impossible. However, the public relations nightmare unfolding may take years to get a handle on and guests need to feel safe at Disney. The thought of alligators lurking in the substantial waterways of Disney is scary for many people.

Was Walt Disney anti-semitic and a misogynist?

Was Walt Disney anti-semitic and a misogynist?

Walt Disney Himself

Even good old "Uncle Walt" has been subject to controversy. Watch the speech made by Meryl Streep at the National Board of Review Awards where she indicated Disney was both anti-Semitic and a "gender bigot."

In researching her accusations there does seem to be some merit to the accusations. Disney himself had been quoted saying he prefers working with men. Streep even read from a letter written by Disney in 1938 saying he didn't hire women for the animating jobs and preferred an all-male studio.

But is Streep being too hard on Disney? Perhaps he was just a product of the time, operating within the predominantly white and patriarchal way of thinking. While opinion is divided on whether or not to cut him some slack, it's notable that even he can't get away from controversy, decades after his own death.

While The Walt Disney Company has seen its share of scandals and controversies, its movies have continued to be popular, its TV shows watched, and the theme parks continuously break their own attendance records.

So while some of these controversies may have caused problems for Disney, the media giant hasn't really suffered too much grief from the adoring public and fans.


Ayush pal ayush on June 16, 2018:

I am story writer I have been write a science fiction movie very mysterious and interesting.

Better Yourself from North Carolina on March 17, 2014:

I had no idea, everything you mentioned above was news to me. Very interesting hub and I enjoyed the comments above as well. Well done, and congrats on HOTD!

Shinkicker from Scotland on March 13, 2014:

Very interesting hub and insight into the company, certainly Darth Disney had his dark side :-)

Voted up

Bernie Ment from Syracuse, NY on March 12, 2014:

I was pleasantly amused at the reference to the Lion King's "SEX" scene. I actually recall noticing that myself when I first saw the movie. I had to go back and see it again just to make sure I saw it right the first time - and I did! Voted up! Great Hub!

JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on March 12, 2014:

What well to do families hiring disabled to buy their tickets? That's really absurd.

JoanCA on March 12, 2014:

I have daughters, so the Disney princesses needing to be rescued by men was always annoying. Not that I think that has much impact on how girls see themselves or the world. I think girls are much more influenced by the actions and behaviors of people around them than things in movies. Still, it was nice that Frozen took a different approach.

Rosie Rose from Toronto, Canada on March 12, 2014:

Awesome article! I thoroughly enjoyed reading all about Disney. There will always be critics in all genre. You did a wonderful job and I know more about Disney now because of your article. Funtabulous!

Nadine May from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa on March 12, 2014:

Interesting to read about Disney world we only ever seen on TV. Congratulations!

L C David (author) from Florida on March 12, 2014:

I'm going to definitely research this one! Thanks for the information.

Lyndsay Gamber from California on March 12, 2014:

Yes it is! It is lying on its side and looks like it was set on fire inside one of the windows where the pirates are pillaging the town! No body ever seems to notice it though.

L C David (author) from Florida on March 12, 2014:

Interesting! Yes, Meryl Streep made reference to her perceived views of Disney's anti-Semitic tendencies in her speech. Is the Menorah on fire at Disneyland's ride? I know it is a little different from the Disney World ride and older.

Lyndsay Gamber from California on March 12, 2014:

If you want to talk about a huge controversy in the park there is a manora lit on fire in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride! It has been rumored that Disney did not like Jewish people (not that it was ever confirmed). This was a great Hub! congrats on HOD!

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 12, 2014:

Great hub and a terrific pick for HOTD. You introduced some new ones to me. Shame on those people who are taking advantage of disabled access. I have seen terrible behavior from park-goers at Disney, nearly trampling a little girl who had cerebral palsy and was in a wheelchair. She was waiting to board the tram and was supposed to board first but the crowd showed no respect to her and her mother/helper, jeopardizing her safety. And those folks who try to take advantage of the system should be expelled from the park -- or banned permanently. There are so many people like myself who have invisible disabilities and who struggle mightily in the Florida heat. The expansiveness of the park is also a challenge and many of the rides you cannot go on because of medical issues. Invisible disabilities can be verified, but that is pretty sensitive and should be unnecessary. People just need to behave.

Carla J Swick from NW PA on March 12, 2014:

Congratulations on HOTD! Very interesting. I'd heard some of these stories so it was great to have explanation.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on March 12, 2014:

Very interesting and informative read! Congratulations for a well deserved HOTD!

Kenneth C Agudo from Tiwi, Philippines on March 12, 2014:

Never of this before but I have read an article about walt disney fairytales that they all ended tragically but disney changed it to happy ending story.

Kelly Kline Burnett from Madison, Wisconsin on March 12, 2014:


Our world has changed and this highlights how it has changed for the better. To hide history is a crime to humanity. We have to know the history to remember and to continue to grow. We must learn how we have advanced and be able to look boldly into the face that once was our history.

If we cannot tell the difference between the magical world of Disney, the gender biases the racial biases and our real world, how can we set the stage for a better humanity.

Shame on Disney for not releasing movies. Releasing these movies with a disclaimer of the time and place these were crafted would be a service to humanity.

Billybuc makes a great point - it says allot about us and Disney doesn't want the backlash. I hope humanity can move beyond this and recognize history for what it is.

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on March 02, 2014:

I think the current Disney corporation has earned a lot of the criticism it has gotten. But for Streep to knock Walt Disney for something he said in 1938 doesn't seem to me to help the discussion. Interesting hub.

L C David (author) from Florida on February 24, 2014:

I think that any big company faces an extra layer of public scrutiny. Disney has pretty much stood their ground and done what they wanted and I admire that.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 24, 2014:

They have had their share of problems of late, but show me a corporation that doesn't. Of course they have done some things that probably could be handled another way....I think we could say that about each of us as well. I still love the idea of a magical kingdom. :) Interesting article; well done!

Ann1Az2 from Orange, Texas on February 22, 2014:

Interesting and also rather thought-provoking. It would almost seem that our heroes have feet of clay. lol

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on February 22, 2014:

I am aware of the Little Mermaid fiasco, I still have the VHS with the banned cover photo. I didn't know about the rest of the controversy. Very interesting. Then again, some one, somewhere will always find something wrong with Disney. Great article!

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on February 22, 2014:

This is a real eye-opener. I had no idea so many of the Disney movies meant for children had sexual innuendos embedded in them. Pretty ballsy, if you ask me (no pun intended)!

L C David (author) from Florida on February 22, 2014:

Point taken. However, if Disney can change the original ending where she turns into sea foam, they could have made it a little less about getting your man. ;-)

Thanks to both of you for stopping by.

Dilip Chandra from India on February 21, 2014:

Interesting information and was written very well. Thank you.

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