Bob Iger is back, perhaps like the Beast-turned-Prince, lifting all curses. What this means for the nine-month feud between the Walt Disney Co. and Republican-dominated (and, instructively, lately fortified) Tallahassee is the sort of plot twist that elevates sagas from amusing to epic.
Full disclosure: Your correspondent is a de mini-mouse owner of the company, presiding over a basket of Walt Disney Co. shares so insignificant, I probably couldn’t even get a map to any of the Florida parks’ Club 33s, let alone gain entry. Nonetheless, I am literally invested in Disney and therefore would like to see its performance improve. So, you know, Go, Bob!
It’s early days yet, so whether Iger’s return to helm the House of the Mouse is Disney’s Luke-I-am-your-father moment is not part of the current trailer.
But there is much about which to be hopeful. Not because, on the central issue driving a wedge between Disney and Florida’s governing super-majority — the state’s Parental Rights in Education statute — Iger has shrunk from just the sort of wokeism Gov. Ron DeSantis has marked for an obituary.
Before signing the bill [in March], Mr. DeSantis criticized [Disney’s] decision to oppose the law, which he said liberals and the media distorted. “You’re a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you’re going to marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state?” he said. “We view that as a provocation and we’re going to fight back against that.”
On the contrary. In March, after the legislation derided as “don’t say ‘gay’ ” crossed the finish line, Iger’s full-throated condemnation (at a time when he was still then-CEO Bob Chapek’s Stromboli) left no doubt where he stood.
“A lot of these issues are not necessarily political,” Iger told CNN+ host Chris Wallace. “It’s about right and wrong. … To me, it wasn’t about politics. It is about what is right and what is wrong, and that just seemed wrong. It seemed potentially harmful to kids.”
Wait. What? Politics is nothing if it doesn’t include disputes over “right and wrong,” and anyone who tells you different is selling something. Or has lived too long in a stupefying bubble. Or both. Both are entirely possible, even plausible.
Also, potentially harmful to which kids? Those whose public elementary schools will no longer host Drag Queen Story Time?
If, as the once and future CEO, Iger digs in on using the company’s formidable leverage to repeal Parental Rights in Education, no olive branches are likely to appear.
But, and here is the thread to cling to, Iger is a proven diplomat. In the realm of public relations, he’s as smooth as a Wonderland Slush.
Disney has reason to make nice: Smarting from being flogged with the misrepresentation of popular legislation, lawmakers stripped the company of Walt’s centerpiece legislative achievement, the 55-year-old Reedy Creek Improvement District, a 40-square-mile chunk of Central Florida governed for and by Disney. Being answerable only to itself gives Disney considerable development advantages over nearby competitors such as Universal Studios Orlando and Sea World.
The statute takes effect June 1, 2023, well after the Legislature’s annual sausage-making session, time enough for both sides to discover compromise. Perhaps if everyone can remember what they are about.
Whatever else that can be said about Walt Disney, this is the ultimate truth: He knew how to get his hooks in us. From movies to theme parks to trinkets to a Sunday night show that once was must-see-TV, Walt understood how to tap into America and Americans.
Sure, those were different times. And he died before the reassuring narrative Disney portrayed — pure hearts prevail; evil gets its comeuppance; happy endings reward the deserving — met the challenge of the topsy-turvy 1960s.
As a nation, we continue to live out the ramifications of the necessary discord sewn because we waged war in Vietnam as well as among ourselves. But even if Walt Disney’s world wasn’t a magical fit for the new contentious reality, the underpinnings of the brand were sufficiently resilient to adapt and thrive under smart innovators Michael Eisner and Iger.
And the loyalty endures.
“People really align themselves with the Disney brand, and almost consider the brand to be a part of them,” says Alexander Huey, a 27-year-old digital marketing professional in Milford, Del., who previously worked at Walt Disney World. Fans often take executive shake-ups personally, he adds.
We are reminded, too, about basketball GOAT Michael Jordan refusing to get pulled into politics at the height of his fame in 1990. “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” he said. Yes, years later, Jordan attempted to soften the quote’s impact by adding context. Bless his heart. Perhaps he hadn’t noticed the inroads the GOP is making in the community whose feelings he allegedly hurt.
Iger, it seems, would benefit from similar awareness. When the fundamental responsibility of a CEO is fiduciary, why reject half your potential audience?
Jeff Gordon, a community college project manager in Los Angeles, began visiting Disneyland as a child and still visits the parks regularly. “I just feel more connected to Disney than other companies,” he says.
For Mr. Gordon, it is important for the leader after Mr. Iger to have a history with the company and “an understanding of what makes Disney Disney” to maintain goodwill with fans.
What makes Disney Disney? Not the full-on Walt and all that implies. Not anymore. Sure, the vast majority of us, especially folks on the center-right, would prefer Iger’s Disney re-emphasize the values and ideals that drew us to Mickey & Co. in the first place.
Failing that, a bunch of Floridians eager to re-establish their status as annual pass-holders (Christmas is coming!) would settle for not being repeatedly poked in the eye. (We needn’t rehearse the gratuitous LGBTQing of recent Disney offerings here, although you can look them up.)
For their part, Florida’s governing Republicans need to be alert to compromise, too. Even Disney World cannot be all-1957-all-the-time. (As for those who argue a threat to shut down Disney World and move elsewhere would bring Florida’s GOP to heel — y’all are adorable.)
Florida and the Walt Disney Co. are partners, bound to each other for better or worse. Back off on the grumpiness, OK? It’s not helpful, and we all need our happily ever after.