Disney's LGBTQ fans worry about Florida policies even as many consider the park a safe haven
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ anti-LGBTQ policies have some LGBTQ Disney fans and Disney World employees on edge to see what the future will be for the Magic Kingdom. Adding to worries is Disney’s legal battle with the state over control of the special tourism district where the Disney World parks reside.
After the 2022 passage of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law among critics, LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida issued a travel advisory for the state, warning tourists of “hostile” policies. DeSantis considers the advisory a “political stunt,” deputy press secretary Jeremy T. Redfern said.
Disney sued DeSantis this year over the company’s authority of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District where the Disney World parks reside. Florida lawmakers plan to revoke Disney’s special privileges — such as its exemption from state inspections — through DeSantis’ newly appointed district board of supervisors. The entertainment giant asked the court to overturn state efforts to exert control over Walt Disney World.
Meanwhile, Florida lawmakers expanded on the “Don’t Say Gay” law this year, in addition to passing and proposing several anti-LGBTQ bills that target issues such as pronoun use in schools, transgender bathroom policies, drag shows and gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth.
Gay Days, the annual Pride event where the LGBTQ community and allies gather at Disney World, has received an increase in emails and social media messages from guests saying they aren’t participating because of “what’s going on,” Gay Days CEO Joseph Clark said.
“Not just with last year’s ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ but obviously everything that’s happened in the past few months, in the past year,” Clark said. “I know that there is some fear in guests of how welcoming Florida as a state is to the LGBTQ+ audience.”
Gay Days began in Orlando in 1991, where people from the LGBTQ community and friends were encouraged to “Wear Red and Be Seen” for a visit to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, according to the Gay Days website. While the event isn’t sponsored by Disney World, the parks seem to have welcomed the celebration over time, Clark said.
The parks also host many other LGBTQ social groups and employ a large number of LGBTQ cast members. But Disney’s LGBTQ fans who live both in and out of Florida have expressed their concerns about traveling to the parks.
San Antonio resident and longtime Disney fan Uriel Diaz has been to three of Disney’s theme park locations: Disneyland in California, Tokyo Disneyland in Japan and Disney World.
Diaz, who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns he and they, has only been to Disney World once, in 2017. It was around Christmastime, so it was “extra magical,” Diaz told NBC News. Diaz’s husband proposed to them on that trip.
“I will always remember Cinderella coming up to us and being like, ‘I’m so happy you found your prince and congratulations,’” Diaz said. “Oh my gosh, it meant so much because it was my first time going.”
In terms of visiting “The Most Magical Place on Earth,” Diaz is going to wait a little while before heading to Disney World again.
“I do believe that it will be a safe space, but everything around it, everything else you have to do to get there is scary right now,” Diaz said.
Don Ford, a Clermont, Florida, resident and Disney World annual pass holder, said while he is not worried about his safety in the parks and around his area of central Florida, he understands why people would want to hold off on traveling to Orlando from out of state.
“My partner brought up to me the other day, like, ‘We need to come up with our evacuation plan if and when things start to get real,’” Ford said. “If something doesn’t change, I can foresee things getting really bad here in Florida.”
Last month, Christina Pushaw, who works as DeSantis’ rapid response director, quote tweeted with a waving-hand emoji an article from Florida’s Voice about the results of a UCLA Williams Institute survey on the number of LGBTQ parents considering leaving the state because of the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
— Christina Pushaw 🐊 🇺🇸 (@ChristinaPushaw) April 15, 2023
For travel bloggers Steph and Katie Burlton of Vancouver, Canada, they were surprised by how comfortable they felt as a couple at Disney World during their visit in 2018, Katie Burlton said.
“We were pleasantly surprised by the public opinion,” Steph Burlton said. “The rules set by Disney kind of inform the public opinion on it because people go in there knowing that they can’t just say things to people or they’ll get kicked out.”
The Burltons, who research LGBTQ laws and the public opinion of countries and new places for the lesbian-friendly travel guides on their blog, said they cannot advise travelers either way about visiting Florida and Disney World.
“It’s such an individual decision,” Katie Burlton said. “I think the community just needs to respect everyone’s decisions around it and rather than all of the finger-pointing, just spend our energy on actually fighting these bills.”
For now, the couple said they are more likely to visit parks closer to them like Disneyland and Disneyland Paris before they return to Disney World.
For Disney World’s LGBTQ employees, the company presents an opportunity for career advancement and acceptance, Tevae Shoels, a singer and actor in the "Finding Nemo" show at Disney World, said.
“A lot of my management is queer, a lot of the administration at Disney is queer, as far as casting directors go, stage managers go,” Shoels, who identifies as pansexual, said. “It’s one thing to say we accept and affirm people in these spaces, but it’s a whole other thing to say we want to see you grow and develop within the company.”
Disney received criticism from fans and employees when then-CEO Bob Chapek delayed his response opposing Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. He later came out to say, in light of the policy, that the company would pause political donations in the state and increase donations to advocacy groups.
“I think a lot of support from Disney is mellow in that it’s like implied support,” Shoels said. “No one’s outright saying we’re supporting, but it’s kind of general.”
Katie Burlton added she’s glad the company is using its power and influence to “push the needle forward.”
Steph Burlton agreed. “I think they have stepped up and they’ve made their stance clear,” she said. “They are taking on a big battle right now, especially in Florida, and they’re standing firm on their policies, and I think that’s great.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com