Jasmine Plows fell in love with Disneyland the first time she visited at age 7.
“I remember saying to my dad at the time that when I grew up, I wanted to be the manager of Disneyland,” she recalls.
Her career plans may have changed, but for years, that love for Disney held steady through the years. She and her wife had an “Up” themed wedding. Their dog is named Loki, after Thor’s mischief-making brother in various Marvel series. When they moved to the US several years ago, they chose Southern California partly for the parks and became Magic Key passholders so they could visit regularly.
But Plows’ ardor for Disney was recently shaken by the company’s response to what critics have dubbed Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would restrict speech on sexual orientation and gender identity in public school classrooms.
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“Right now, I’m looking at my Disneyland lanyard, which has Pride pins all over it,” she said Tuesday.
“The magic is kind of ruined for me.”
Many LGBTQ Disney fans with deep love for Disney expressed disappointment, sadness and anger at the company’s response to the legislation now awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature. Some have pledged to boycott Disney while others demand more action.
Disney’s CEO reached out to employees on Friday apologizing for the company’s response to the bill, but some fans remain upset with the company.
Disney’s response to Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill
Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Chapek made his first public comments on the matter during a shareholders meeting Wednesday, a day after the bill passed in the Florida legislature.
“We were opposed to the bill from the outset, but we chose not to take a public position on it because we thought we could be more effective working behind the scenes engaging directly with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle,” he told investors, noting efforts had been going on for weeks.
“I understand our original approach, no matter how well-intended, didn’t quite get the job done. But we’re committed to support the community going forward,” he added.
Many fans and some employees had called on Disney to publicly oppose the bill like other companies, given its large presence in Florida and longtime support of the LGBTQ community.
USA TODAY reached out to Disney for comment.
Earlier in the week, Chapek told Disney employees, in an internal memo obtained by USA TODAY:
I do not want anyone to mistake a lack of a statement for a lack of support. We all share the same goal of a more tolerant, respectful world. Where we may differ is in the tactics to get there. And because this struggle is much bigger than any one bill in any one state, I believe the best way for our company to bring about lasting change is through the inspiring content we produce, the welcoming culture we create, and the diverse community organizations we support .
Pivoting Wednesday, he told investors he called DeSantis to express the company’s concerns and planned to meet with him and a number of LGBTQ Disney leaders. Chapek also said Disney would sign the Human Rights Campaign’s statement opposing similar legislative efforts around the country and donate $5 million toward groups that protect LGBTQ rights, including Human Rights Campaign.
Human Rights Campaign said Wednesday it’s refusing the donation until Disney builds on its pledge and work with LGBTQ advocates.
On Friday’s memo, Chapek said the company is immediately “increasing our support for advocacy groups to combat similar legislation in other states.”
‘A Band Aid for the Problem’
Disney’s response earlier this week was enough to get some fans to boycott the brand.
“I feel that the donation he made and the pledge is just something he did because he was pressured to do so,” said Juan Carlos Olivares, a former Disneyland cast member who’s loved Disney since his parents bought him VHS movies as a kid. “Although it is great that these organizations will get this money, it is merely a Band-Aid for the problem.”
“It needs to feel genuine and like there will be actual change rather than just trying to make us go away,” Plows said. She started an online petition demanding Disney publicly “denounce the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill and vow not to fund the sponsors again.”
In Monday’s memo, Chapek said Disney had not donated any money to any politicians based on this bill, but previously donated to lawmakers on both sides of the issue. Both Monday and Wednesday, he said leaders would reassess future political contributions.
“For the cast members, I just can’t imagine how they will feel,” said Juan Dena, a longtime Disney lover who grew up going to Disneyland and previously worked at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT.
He said many cast members are part of the LGBTQ community, like him.
“I always felt very, very safe and included among my peers and management,” he said. “Now I’m a little concerned that those ideas and those values that I thought they had, maybe they’re just a facade.”
He hopes it’s not but says, “At this point, everything the company says will be taken as disingenuous. It took them a minute to react, and time is critical regarding this type of matter.”
Dena called Wednesday’s show of support “a little too late” while noting Disney is quick to “take our money” when it comes to “Pride, Gay Days and all the merchandise they have surrounding Pride Month†
The whole matter has made him question his spending.
“I want to buy from companies that support me and my community,” he said.
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Staring at a room full of memorabilia, Plows said she was devastated because so many facets of her life are touched by Disney, but “I can’t in good conscience give them any money” without a formal public statement denouncing the bill and pledge not to fund its sponsors.
Olivares said Wednesday that boycotting is hard since Disney is such a big company and he still has friends who work for it, but he wants to see more action.
“Inaction or neutrality is still a (political) stance because it allows for the hate to remain,” he said. “Allyship is being a co-conspirator and working with marginalized groups and allowing their voices to be heard, not just standing on the sidelines and being sympathetic.”
Not everyone wants that. Others on social media have criticized Disney for weighing in on the legislation, saying it’s about parents’ choice in their children’s education. And on Wednesday’s investors call, a shareholder took issue with Disney’s LBGTQ representation efforts, asking for the restoration of “innocence” to its movies and TV shows.
Disney has long been committed to diversity, equity and inclusion both among its staff and in its content; still, some fans say there’s more work to be done with representation, such as featuring main characters who are queer. Last year and in years prior, Human Rights Campaign listed The Walt Disney Co. as one of the 100 Best Places to Work for LGBTQ Equality.
Disney CEO: ‘I’m sorry’
On Friday, Chapek reached out to employees to apologize.
“It is clear that this is not just an issue about a bill in Florida, but instead yet another challenge to basic human rights. You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry ,” the memo reads. “I am committed to this work and to you all, and will continue to engage with the LGBTQ+ community so that I can become a better ally.”
Chapek promised the company would create a new framework for its political giving to “ensure our advocacy better reflects our values” and pause all political donations in Florida.
Responses to Chapek’s message varied.
Plows said Chapek’s message was strong enough to get her to reinstate her Disney+ account.
“What I appreciate about it is the acknowledgment of failure and apology for hurting us. And then the political donations was the second ask, and I’m satisfied with that, as long as they stick with it,” she said. “(I) support Disney overall now, although I will be a little wary until I see them doing this consistently. But I am hopeful – I think this sufficiently spooked them and going forward they will be more outspoken earlier.”
Olivares called the message a step in the right direction but said he is still wary of Chapek.
“Until I see actual action like the inclusion of queer stories in Disney films front and center, then I’ll see how things are,” he said.
Contributing: David Oliver and Patrick Ryan USA TODAY