Disney had a tight-lipped culture. Then Florida happened

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 am 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,” Nora Rogers, a production supervisor at Walt Disney Animation Studios, said in an interview. Rogers, who helped organize the morning walkout, wore a “Gay & Tired” shirt.

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 critical management, sometimes publicly and on social media platforms.

“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 works reflect the difficulties of a corporate leadership position, 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.”

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. In a sign of the rising tensions, divisions representing ABC News, ESPN and the parks and resorts employees on Tuesday posted messages of solidarity and support for LGBTQ colleagues.

Goal 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.

Chapek eventually emailed an apology to 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 hadn’t been clear how many people would participate in the Tuesday walkout, considering that many corporate employees are still working remotely.

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 of 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.

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