Disney had a tight-lipped employee culture. Then Florida happened

Glendale, CA - March 22: Disney's LGBTQ employees Try Desa, left, Tiffany Cooper and Nicole Quadros rally against their CEO Bob Chapek's handling of the staff controversy over Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill, at Bette Davis Picnic Area on Tuesday, March 22, 2022 in Glendale, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Disney's employees Tri DeSa, left, Tiffany Cooper and Nicole Quadros rally against their CEO Bob Chapek's handling of the staff controversy over Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill, at Bette Davis Picnic Area on Tuesday, March 22, 2022 in Glendale, CA. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

On Tuesday morning, an extraordinary scene unfolded on the Burbank lot of Walt Disney Co.

About 100 Disney employees gathered outside the Roy E. Disney Animation Building, known for its giant Sorcerer’s Apprentice hat, hoisting signs saying "Disney Say Gay" and "#disneydobetter." They posed for a group photo at 9:30 a.m. before heading over to rally in front of the lot's Alameda Avenue gate.

“We came out today to stand in support of our queer employees and their families, and it’s been amazing to see everyone,” said Nora Rogers, a production supervisor at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Rogers, who helped organize the morning walkout, wore a "Gay & Tired" shirt.

BLGBTQ employees Carlos Lopez Estrada , left, and Juan Pablo Reyes holding a Mickey Mouse in rainbow colors.
LGBTQ employees Carlos Lopez Estrada , left, and Juan Pablo Reyes holding a Mickey Mouse in rainbow colors, walkout of Disney Animation protesting CEO Bob Chapek's handling of the staff controversy over Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill, aka the "Parental Rights in Education" bill, on Tuesday, March 22, 2022 in Burbank, CA. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The protests culminated weeks of mounting employee blowback against Chief Executive Bob Chapek's response to Florida's Parental Rights in Education bill, derisively nicknamed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by opponents, which bans instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade, and could impose limits for other age levels.

But the ongoing revolt by staff also signifies a significant break with Disney's normally insular company culture, in which employees have long been fiercely loyal and protective of the company.

The entertainment powerhouse, which employs nearly 200,000 people worldwide, is famous for its unique company ethos. Disney has its own language, referring to workers as "cast members." The company even has its own professional development arm known as the Disney Institute, which holds summits for business professionals and has online courses on leadership and employee engagement.

And though its public image is warm, fuzzy and kid-friendly, Disney has long had a tight-lipped and top-down corporate culture where employees rarely publicly challenge top management.

With the exception of unionized theme park workers who have sometimes protested wages and other working conditions, employees were loath to speak ill of the Mouse House. People who join Disney, especially in departments like animation, tend to be diehard fans.

However, the Florida controversy has shattered those norms, leading a critical mass of insiders to critique management, sometimes publicly and on social media platforms.

LGBTQ employees and their supporters walkout of Disney Animation protesting CEO Bob Chapek.
LGBTQ employees and their supporters walkout of Disney Animation protesting CEO Bob Chapek's handling of the staff controversy over Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill, aka the "Parental Rights in Education" bill, on Tuesday, March 22, 2022 in Burbank, CA. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

"Disney has a history of being a tough place," said USC emeritus film business professor Jason E. Squire. "Today, to their credit, the rank and file is in an uproar. These issues have emboldened enough of the employees to really make an impact."

The broader pressure on Chapek this early in his tenure is not just about the legislation, though. It’s also about a pileup of grievances by fans and employees that have dogged Chapek since he took over as CEO, succeeding Bob Iger two years ago.

The controversies have spanned a public fiasco over Scarlett Johansson's box office bonuses for "Black Widow," the decision to move theme park attraction designers (known as Imagineers) to Florida, a streaming-focused reorganization of Disney’s business and the introduction of extra charges to skip lines at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Jason Moser, an analyst at the Motley Fool who follows Disney, said the company's travails reflect the difficulties of a corporate leadership transition, particularly following the retirement of an esteemed leader like Iger, who officially stepped down in January. Chapek's biggest priorities include growing the company's streaming services, including Disney+.

But he also has to show he can manage a modern company and a staff of workers that is more vocal and demanding of its bosses than earlier generations.

"Right now there is a burden of proof on Chapek to show that he is the right person for this job," Moser said. "This is one step in the process of learning how Bob Chapek ultimately is going to be as a leader, so that's, I think, probably how most investors are looking at it."

A Disney spokesperson said in a statement: “We know how important this issue is for our LGBTQ+ employees, their families and allies, we respect our colleagues’ right to express their views, and we pledge our ongoing support of the LGBTQ+ community in the fight for equal rights.”

Chapek initially tried to keep Disney out of the political crosshairs, making the case in an email to staff that corporate statements could backfire and that the company could better change the culture through movies and TV shows.

But the attempt at neutrality led to condemnation on all sides. LGBTQ employees were angered by the email, letting their feelings be known in internal Slack messages, emails to senior management and, in some cases, on social media.

Dana Terrace, creator of the Disney Channel's "The Owl House," tweeted that she was "tired of making Disney look good."

Employees of Disney divisions, including Pixar Animation Studios, sent letters to top executives asking for further action on the Florida bill and other legislation making its way through the states. Divisions representing ABC News, ESPN and the parks and resorts employees on Tuesday posted messages of solidarity and support for LGBTQ colleagues.

But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign the bill into law, has blasted Disney as a "woke" corporation, and ripped the company for doing business in China despite human rights abuses.

The Daily Wire, a conservative news outlet, reported Monday that staffers within Disney had posted their own open letter "in favor of a politically neutral Disney."

LGBTQ employees protesting CEO Bob Chapek's handling of the staff controversy over Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill.
LGBTQ employees protesting CEO Bob Chapek's handling of the staff controversy over Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill, aka the "Parental Rights in Education" bill, walk along Alameda Avenue in front of Walt Disney Company on Tuesday, March 22, 2022 in Burbank, CA. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

"We have watched as our colleagues, convinced that no one in the company could possibly disagree with them, grow increasingly aggressive in their demands," the letter said. "They insist that TWDC take a strong stance on not only this issue but other legislation and openly advocate for the punishment of employees who disagree with them."

Chapek eventually emailed an apology to LGBTQ employees and promised to suspend political donations to Florida while the company revises its advocacy policies.

Even that wasn't enough for many employees, who have demanded that Disney permanently cut off donations to politicians who supported the bill.

Disney units including Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm issued statements on social media that went further than Chapek's in blasting the legislation, as well as similar bills percolating in other states.

"We strongly denounce any and all legislation that infringes on the basic human rights of the LGBTQIA+ community," Marvel said in a statement on Instagram. "Marvel Studios stands for hope, inclusivity and strength; and we proudly stand with the community."

Some broadcasters with Disney-owned ESPN participated in an on-air moment of silence to protest the Florida bill during an NCAA women's basketball tournament game on Friday.

It still wasn't clear how many people participated in the Tuesday walkout, considering that many corporate employees are still working remotely. Protest organizers had encouraged supporters working from home to set their status as "busy" in work communication software.

At 11 a.m. on Tuesday, a group of about 50 to 75 people, including Disney employees and supporters, gathered at the Bette Davis Picnic Area in Griffith Park with signs demanding the company do more against the Florida bill and similar legislation. They chanted in front of TV cameras and signed letters in support of gay and trans youth.

Zach Kuiland, who works in human resources and outreach for Disney, called the internal uprising the "Stone-mouse revolution," a reference to the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City.

He joined the company 11 years ago through the Disney College Program. In an interview, he said he came out as gay prior to joining the company and had thought of Disney as a queer-friendly employer. He grew up in Los Angeles County and grew up going to Disneyland with his mom.

Kuiland, 30, said that history has made Disney's slow response to the Florida bill even harder to stomach.

"I had been telling people Disney is a place where you can bring your full self to work," Kuiland said. "And while that still is true, it just feels like ... the upper leadership is not really listening. Or at least they haven't been listening in a meaningful way."

LGBTQ employees protesting CEO Bob Chapek's handling of the staff controversy over Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill.
LGBTQ employees protesting CEO Bob Chapek's handling of the staff controversy over Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill, aka the "Parental Rights in Education" bill walk out from Walt Disney Animation on Tuesday, March 22, 2022 in Burbank, CA. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Color designer Sam Kestin, who is trans and nonbinary and joined the company just months ago, voiced disappointment at Disney's response.

"It is difficult to start working at your dream company and have that dream kind of shattered," Kestin, 30, said.

The protest followed a week of smaller demonstrations by Disney employees, who left their desks for 15-minute afternoon breaks. Some of the daily protests last week saw a couple dozen staffers gather in the Disney Legends Plaza at the Burbank lot.

The company moved a panel discussion on LGBTQ issues, part of its Reimagine Tomorrow initiative of events promoting diversity and inclusion, from Tuesday to Monday so it wouldn't interfere with the protest. During the meeting, Disney executives including Chapek reiterated their regret for mishandling the situation and promised to embark on a listening tour with employees.

“I know that our silence wasn’t just about the bill in Florida, but about every time an individual or institution that should have stood up for this community didn’t,” Chapek said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.