“Disney was not accountable to anyone,” observed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in his announcement kicking off his presidential campaign. “You know, it’s human nature: If there’s no accountability over any individual or entity, of course they’re going to behave differently than if you have normal accountability.” The truth of DeSantis’ words is perfectly demonstrated by Disney’s recent treatment of guests at Shades of Green, a military-owned hotel at Walt Disney World. Disney’s actions say a lot about how a company — one that used to be notable for its patriotism in the days of Walt — now regards U.S. Armed Forces families and veterans.
The U.S. Army bought the Shades of Green hotel, then called the Disney Inn, from Disney in 1996. Guests of Shades of Green, the flagship military recreational property in the contiguous U.S., are military personnel, their families, and veterans. According to Steve Bell, who runs the main website for military visitors to Disney parks, the hotel is self-sustaining — it’s funded through guests’ payments for rooms and meals, not through annual appropriations.
As a property, Shades of Green’s primary allure is its close proximity to the original — and still most popular — section of Walt Disney World, the area including the Magic Kingdom and the monorail encircling Seven Seas Lagoon. Shades of Green enjoys a prime location just across the street from Disney’s Polynesian Resort. From the Polynesian, Shades of Green guests can easily ride the monorail to the Magic Kingdom, board the boats that travel across Seven Seas Lagoon, or take the path around the lagoon to the park’s entrance.
Now, abruptly, Disney has barred Shades of Green guests from walking off the hotel’s grounds and crossing the street to the Polynesian, thereby cutting off their pedestrian access to the monorail, the boats, and the Magic Kingdom itself. Why has Disney done this? Because it can.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), the entity through which Disney has been granted largely unequaled powers of self-government — and which has been a focus of DeSantis’ fight with the corporation — approved funding for construction to widen the road between the Polynesian and Shades of Green. In light of this road project, Disney decided the existing crosswalk would no longer suffice for pedestrian traffic. But rather than building a bridge or putting in a stoplight, Disney decided it would simply ban Shades of Green guests from crossing that street, thereby shutting down pedestrian access from the hotel to the rest of Walt Disney World. This is access that had been available for 50 years, according to Bell, long before the Army bought the hotel 27 years ago.
This action exemplifies the lack of accountability that DeSantis, a Navy veteran, was highlighting. Without the extraordinary powers of the RDIC, Disney couldn’t just decide to widen a public road without regard for its effect on anyone else, and without making any accommodations to them. But the RDIC, in the words of a website devoted to the Disney parks’ history, “has far-reaching powers,” allowing Disney to “construct almost anything within its borders, including a nuclear power plant (which it never built…).” The RDIC’s own website says the RDIC enjoys “the same authority and responsibility as a county government” — an unchecked and tyrannical county government.
Indeed, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, from Disney’s perspective, cutting off pedestrian access for military families and veterans wasn’t a bug, but rather a feature, of its plans. Now Disney can keep the middle-class military guests who stay at Shades of Green away from the Polynesian’s monorail stop, its boating docks, and the path that proceeds from there to the Magic Kingdom, preserving those for people who pay the $700-and-up nightly rates at that Disney-owned resort. Disney is currently building a new hotel tower at the Polynesian, which will increase demand for the monorail, boats, and pathway. What better time to cut off access to military guests whose lodging bills aren’t padding Disney’s coffers?
To be clear, the monorail, boats, and pathway are open to anyone, whether they are staying at a Disney-owned hotel or not. This was not a special perk for Shades of Green guests. But in order to use these various modes of transportation, one has to be able to get to them.
Shades of Green guests not only can’t do so, as of May 1, but they don’t even have access to the Disney-run bus system. They have access only to the military hotel’s own relatively inefficient bus system. That system is not funded at taxpayer expense and runs on a budget, which means comparatively infrequent buses and indirect routes.
Moreover, many Shades of Green guests are military families with young children and strollers, or disabled veterans with electric scooters. The strollers aren’t allowed on the buses without being folded up — a delight for any parent who must remove a sleeping child or two at the end of a long day — while only two of the scooters are allowed on a given bus. Since the buses are scheduled to run only once every 20 to 60 minutes (depending upon the route and direction), this can result in long delays for disabled vets just to be able to leave or return to the Shades of Green grounds.
If Disney wanted to let Shades of Green guests cross the road, they could. Disney could simply install a traffic light and let guests cross the four-lane road at the light. That’s what Disney did when it wanted to let guests cross an eight-lane highway to get to its Disney Springs shops. Or it could put in a bridge or tunnel (using affordable pre-stressed tunnel segments). As Bell notes, Disney built five pedestrian bridges to make sure people could cross the road and get to Disney Springs — including one that lets Disney employees cross over to have lunch at their restaurant of choice. Yet when it comes to military veterans and families, Disney, exercising its extraordinary “authority and responsibility as a county government,” has decided to shut off access.
As with many of Disney’s other recent decisions, Walt would surely be ashamed. Tom Bricker of the Disney Tourist Blog writes, “It’s well documented that Walt Disney was distinctly patriotic. He attempted to join the Army in 1918 but was rejected for being too young. He instead forged the birth date on his application for the Red Cross Ambulance Corps and spent a year in France during World War I.”
Walt’s devotion to America and its military didn’t stop then. According to the National World War II Museum, Walt Disney Studios “devoted over 90 percent of its wartime output to producing training, propaganda, entertainment, and public-service films, as well as publicity and print campaigns — and all without profit.”
Alas, this is no longer Walt’s Disney. It’s merely a corporate giant with little patriotic spirit and minimal connection to Main Street Americans (an irony for a company that celebrates Main Street, U.S.A.). It needs to be held accountable for using its quasi-governmental powers in a manner that shows such callous disregard for military families and veterans, while devaluing a military-owned hotel in the process. Disney shouldn’t be able to get away with this.