The Walt Disney Company holds a relatively impeccable brand image, one that has been known and loved by millions over generations.
Still, sometimes even the happiest and most wholesome of brands will take a hit from a surprising accident or miscommunication. From the Skyliner incident in 2019 to the international closure of all Disney parks, check out these 7 times that Disney had to deal with a public relations nightmare!
1. Attempting to Claim #Maythe4th on Twitter
In 2020, Disney dealt with some backlash as they were accused of trying to claim #Maythe4th on Twitter. Basically, Disney+ tweeted that use of the hashtag implied consent to Disney’s Terms of Service. Since #Maythe4th has been around for a while, users across Twitter were not happy with Disney attempting to attach their terms to it.
— Disney+ (@disneyplus) April 27, 2020
Pretty soon, subscribers and lawyers alike flocked to their keyboards and phones to explain that Disney could not attach consent of their terms to the hashtag, according to Insider.
A few hours later, Disney+ tweeted again clarifying that the controversial tweet had a limited application for the purpose of a possible surprise feature on Disney+ on May 4th. The clarifying tweet said, “The above legal language applies ONLY to replies to this tweet using #Maythe4th and mentioning @DisneyPlus. These replies may appear in something special on May the 4th!” Still, Twitter audiences condemned the poor handling of the promotion.
2. Trademarking the Phrase “Hakuna Matata”
A few years ago, the company dealt with some uproar over their trademark on the Swahili phrase, “Hakuna Matata.” Despite being trademarked back in 1994, some activists ignited backlash leading up to the release of the live-action The Lion King in 2019, according to Deadline.
The negative response was rooted in the fact that a trademark on a common Swahili phrase felt disrespectful to the culture. Zimbabwean activist Shelton Mpala was quoted saying, “While we respect Disney as an entertainment institution responsible for creating many of our childhood memories, the decision to trademark ‘Hakuna Matata’ is predicated purely on greed and is an insult not only to the spirit of the Swahili people but also, Africa as a whole.”
Disney responded by mentioning that the phrase is copyrighted only for use on t-shirts and doesn’t prevent individual use of the phrase. They also noted that plenty of popular phrases have been trademarked over the years such as “Merry Christmas” and “Seasons Greetings.” Eventually, the backlash died down without any further action from Disney.
3. Applying to Trademark “Dia de los Muertos”
“Hakuna Matata” hasn’t been the only trademark that left Disney in hot water. According to USA Today, during the 2013 production of Disney/Pixar’s Coco, Disney attempted to trademark the phrase “Dia de los Muertos,” the name of the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead.
Within hours uproar ensued. People accused the company of attempting to trademark a cultural tradition. Lalo Alcaraz, the creator of the comic strip “La Cucaracha,” tweeted: “Disney to trademark Dia de Los Muertos, also your dead relatives.” Yikes.
Disney ended up pulling the trademark application on the same day saying, “As we have previously announced, Disney-Pixar is developing an animated feature inspired by the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos. Disney’s trademark filing was intended to protect any potential title for our film and related activities. It has since been determined that the title of the film will change, and therefore we are withdrawing our trademark filing.“
4. Charging an Elementary School for Showing The Lion King
We’ve got another time that The Lion King spurred a controversial situation! Earlier this year, Disney fined a Californian elementary school $250 for showing 2019’s The Lion King at a fundraiser, per CNN Business.
According to CNN, many around the country expressed distaste for Disney’s “very corporate” action. Though the school’s Parent-Teacher Association begrudgingly agreed to pay the fine out of the $800 that they made for the fundraiser, the backlash ended up having Disney pull the fine and issue an apology.
Then-CEO Bob Iger personally apologized tweeting, “Our company @WaltDisneyCo apologizes to the Emerson Elementary School PTA. I will personally donate to their fundraising initiative.”
5. The Skyliner Accident and Other Transportation Incidents
Sometimes accidents in the park bring serious PR challenges for Disney! Walt Disney World has seen a few large-scale transportation tragedies in recent years. You might remember the devastating monorail crash in 2009 (you can read the Orlando Sentinel’s coverage here).
In 2019, just after the opening of the brand-new Disney Skyliner System, the Skyliner had an accident that caused a complete shutdown of the transport with guests stuck onboard for hours.
Thankfully, there were no injuries. But naturally, many Disney fans were put-off by this incident. Disney had to contend with unhappy guests who were directly affected by the incident, as well as those raising questions about the company’s attention to safety — some even citing the fatal monorail crash.
In response, Disney released a statement that expressed apologies to all affected guests and reassured them that they were investigating the cause of the incident. The following weeks saw the addition of a dedicated guest relations line for the Gondola System.
6. The Closure of All Disney Parks Internationally
As you’re probably aware, Disney parks around the world closed in early 2020 in response to the global health crisis. With such large-scale closures and pressing health concerns, Disney had a whole new PR landscape to navigate.
As the pandemic continued, Disney had been hesitant to make any official statements regarding a reopening. Ultimately, Disney announced that it would begin a phased reopening of its theme parks — though the occasional park has had to shut down again here and there.
Now that all Disney parks have reopened around the world, Disney continues to navigate the uncharted waters of global health concerns as COVID-19 continues to affect travel internationally.
7. Response to “Don’t Say Gay” Bill & Reedy Creek Improvement District
In 2022, Disney released a statement condemning Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The bill “prohibit[s] primary school educators from engaging in discussions related to sexual orientation or gender identity.” It also “restrict[s] mention of LGBTQ+ topics in classrooms that are not ‘age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.’”
Both the Walt Disney Company and CEO Bob Chapek spoke out against the bill, which led to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis taking action to eliminate Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District. The Reedy Creek Improvement District essentially allows Disney World to act as its own county, making key decisions and governing the land it operates on in Disney World. Reedy Creek can establish its own building regulations and provides certain services to Disney World, like emergency services.
The elimination of the Reedy Creek Improvement District would create a massive increased tax burden for the residents of Orange and Osceola Counties, as Disney World currently funds the services provided by RCID.
The situation is still ongoing, as the bill that removes the special district states that the dissolution isn’t effective until June 1st, 2023, but the financial and logistical implications from the change have created a tough situation for Disney and the area’s residents to contend with.
Unfortunately, Disney parks are not immune to tragedy. Disney has had to respond to many incidents over the years (including several that we’re not mentioning here), but in most, if not all, cases they handled it with as much tact as the situations allowed.
While Disney continues to face difficult Public Relations situations, at each turn they have been ready to face the press and the public with a thoughtful response.
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Which do you think have been some of the worst situations for Disney? Share your thoughts in the comments!