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Big changes happening at Disney theme parks

The world’s theme park leader is making big changes aimed at increasing inclusivity and diversity. However, a University of South Carolina professor who is one of the leading experts on the industry says that as with most business decisions, money is also a factor.

Disney has dropped its gender-specific rules for theme park employees (called cast members by the company). Visible tattoos will now be allowed. Gender-inclusive hairstyles, jewelry and nail styles are also now permissible.

"Some Disney fans are so resistant to change and want their favorite things to stay the same, but the whole ideology of these parks is the opposite of that."  -Emma Vallebuona

Other changes include costumes for people in wheelchairs, LGBTQ+ Mickey Mouse ears and alterations to some popular attractions at the parks to promote diversity and inclusion.

“It’s probably the biggest change in Disney dress code ever, but it’s not all pixie dust and idealism,” says Scott Smith, an associate professor in South Carolina’s School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management whose primary research focus is theme park and attraction management. “Business is booming. It's coming back from the pandemic much quicker than people expected. The dress code has always been a barrier to getting cast members, so they’ve made a calculated decision to lower that hurdle."

While there have been some objections to the changes, seen in op-eds and online comment sections, Smith says Disney has taken that into account and decided the benefits outweigh any downside. Those benefits include fiscal health as well as overall public perception. 

Emma Vallebuona is a former Disney cast member and 2021 UofSC graduate whose senior thesis focused on Disney parks. She says that while some of those objecting will be loud, they will be overwhelmed by those who approve or simply don’t notice.

"People my age think this is overdue. They don't think we should be congratulating Disney. They're not pushing any progress forward. They're following the changes that are already happening. They're not at the forefront of any societal change,” she says. “I saw a comment from someone who says the changes will ‘confuse the kids.’ I don't know how seeing me wearing pants is more confusing than a flying pirate ship."

Smith believes the changes in popular attractions like Splash Mountain and Jungle Cruise will raise more objections than the new employee dress code. On Splash Mountain, references to the 1946 Disney film Song of the South (long criticized for use of racist stereotypes and not released by Disney on any home video or streaming) will be gone. They will be replaced by a storyline based on The Princess and the Frog, featuring Disney’s first Black princess.

"I think Disney wants to be able to say ‘we're constantly updating and trying to be culturally sensitive.’ It's better to be out in front of the issues than to wait for people to start protesting,” Smith says. "There will be some people who are going to be turned off by this, but they're going to be a minority."

Vallebuona, whose thesis focused on changes at Disney's Epcot park, says the parks have evolved throughout their history.

"Some Disney fans are so resistant to change and want their favorite things to stay the same, but the whole ideology of these parks is the opposite of that,” she says. “Kids don't really know Song of the South. They're not going to care.”

With nearly 156 million visitors in 2019, Disney dwarfs all competitors in the theme park industry, and Smith says none of the changes will have any significant effect on that.

"Time marches on. Nothing stays the same. Even Walt said we're always going to be innovating and changing and building,” he says.

To Vallebuona (who as a cast member had to cover the tattoo on her wrist, featuring a scene from the Disney movie “Up”), the changes matter because inclusion matters.

“Now people have opportunities who didn’t have them before,” she says. "Walt Disney’s original reason for the 'Disney look' was to keep it classy, professional, but there's nothing unprofessional about these changes. Women wear pants now. People have painted nails and people wear earrings and have tattoos. That's not really controversial anymore.”

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