On today's installment of internet personalities gloriously missing the point, an OpEd in the Orlando Sentinel entitled I love Disney World, but wokeness is ruining the experience has gone viral, with fans lambasting author Jonathan Vanboskerck's assertion that Disney's endeavors towards inclusivity have made the parks “less fun because immersion and thus the joy is taking a back seat to politics."
"Disney, please return to the values and vision of Walt," wrote Vanboskerck, citing recent changes to Pirates of the Caribbean and the planned alteration to Splash Mountain to remove outdated features. “The customer experience should be the core of your business model. Immersion should not be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness and appeasing the Twitter mob.”
Now, reader, I have a confession to make – since I can remember, my pop culture obsession is and has always been feverishly studying the Disney Parks and the philosophy behind them. I have spent hours and hours delving into Disney park history, watching countless documentaries, pouring over books, and falling down many a YouTube and Wikipedia rabbit hole (I highly recommend watching all of Defunctland's video archive and reading the “Cranium Command" entry). I even spent a good part of last winter digging through archived materials outlining Walt Disney's early concepts for EPCOT while researching a theory analyzing the fate of original Future World attractions as an allegory for American hyper-capitalism. Based on everything I've learned through the course of my roughly 24-year-long obsession, Vanboskerck's sentiments couldn't be further from the truth. These changes aren't implemented to appease a “Twitter mob" or for the sake of “wokeness” – on the contrary, they're keeping Walt Disney's vision for the parks alive and well. What Vanboskerck fails to take into account is just how relative something as intangible as Disney magic can be, shifting in definition, manifestation -- or mere existence in some cases -- from person to person.
Take, for example, his comments on the recent Pirates of the Caribbean update. Largely considered one of the parks' most iconic rides, Pirates of the Caribbean has seen several updates since its respective 1967 and 1973 Disneyland and Disney World debuts, including the alteration of a scene in which pirates are chasing women in 1997, and the addition of several animatronic iterations of Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow in 2006. More recently in 2017, Disney announced their plans to revamp the ride's infamous “redhead” scene, depicting a “wench” being auctioned off as a bride, as the auctioneer makes disrespectful comments about her appearance, adding in its place, a revamped version in which the “redhead” is now a pirate, helping her crew auction off loot and cracking jokes back at her fellow matey.
Although the author maintains the scene's replacement of the scene takes him “out of the illusion because they remind us of reality and the politics that forced the changes,” for many others, it enhances the ride's famously immersive storytelling. Although human trafficking and its history are issues that should absolutely be addressed, including a depiction of a terrifying real-life occurrence on a park ride likely for comedic value, considering the overall tone of the ride, and without a scrap of context can be jarring for many riders, especially those who have personal connections to the topic, roughly 40.3 million people, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. In order to best maintain the “illusion” for the largest number of park guests, why not create something that everybody – or, well, everybody except for Vanboskerck and a handful of other selective Disney park purists -- can laugh along with?
Now folks, don't get me wrong – Walt Disney's creativity and attention to detail as evident through his painstaking design of the parks, down to the exact 30-step distance between each of the park's trash bins is impressive, however, it is impossible to separate the art from the artist, who many say held racist and antisemitic views. As such, the content appearing in the parks that may echo these purported views must be updated, not to win points on Twitter, but to help uphold the park's “magic” for all. In the essay, Vanboskerck expresses concern that these alterations are indicative of the park moving “away from the values and vision of Walt Disney." While some of these shifts may counter Disney's alleged personal politics, the sentiment behind them represents Disney's core philosophy on his parks, which Imagineers past and present tense take very seriously. “It is my wish to delight all members of the family, young and old, parent and child," he once said. As such, these changes, including replacing Splash Mountain's Song of the South overlay, a relatively obscure film decried for its explicitly racist depiction of Reconstruction-era south, with the studio's 2009 box-office hit, The Princess and The Frog, are critical in ensuring that all who come to this happy place truly are welcome, to once again paraphrase Mr. Disney.
To round out his essay, Vanboskerck offers a pointed plea to the people of Orlando, asserting that if Disney doesn't cease enacting changes he deems too politically divisive, he will take his “tourist dollars elsewhere.” Despite employing such a truly bone-chilling threat, the data, specifically between 2018 and 2019, the year in which the new Pirates of the Caribbean redhead scene was installed, disproves this point. While attendance to the parks as a whole decreased by 0.8 percent, a drop largely stemming from Hollywood Studio's 2 percent decrease in that time period, attendance at the Magic Kingdom, the park that houses Pirates of the Caribbean increased by 0.5 percent between 2018 and 2019. This was the second-largest year-over-year attendance increase of Disney World's four parks included in the 2019 report from Themed Entertainment Association.
And if you don't believe me or the data that these shifts are a good idea, take it from Mr. Disney himself: “Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future."