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10 Biggest Controversies at Walt Disney World

Magic Kingdom Castle with a lightning bolt behind it
Credit: Disney / Canva

Controversy. That is a word we have learned a lot about over the past years. Even the most Magical Place on Earth is not spared from its share of controversy.

Controversies at Walt Disney World

From the benign disagreements that are hotly debated amongst Disney fans to the more wide-reaching topics that mirror the larger world around us, Walt Disney World spurs plenty of conversation. Here are ten controversies at Walt Disney World that have rocked the fandom over the years… some still impacting park guests today. 

10. The Must Eat Treat

Among Walt Disney World guests, there are two distinct camps: Team Dole Whip and Team Mickey Bar.

Dole whip float

Credit: Disney

These groups are divided by their unrelenting love of a sweet treat they believe is the quintessential Disney Dessert. 

Team Dole Whip loves the light, fruity flavor of the classic pineapple frozen treat in all its twisty glory. Luckily for this side of the debate, the Dole Whip can now be found in multiple parks and resorts across Walt Disney World, no longer requiring a trip to Adventureland in the Magic Kingdom to enjoy. Multiple versions of the Dole Whip are now available, including those spiked with alcohol, the Dole Whip float with juice (my favorite), and the Dole Whip swirl

Team Mickey Bar argues that the classic vanilla ice cream covered in crunchy chocolate shell is THE sweet treat that defines Walt Disney World. I mean, it is in the shape of Mickey’s head, so it screams Disney. These treats are found throughout the parks and resorts, and you can even find them at home at some grocery stores (but they taste better at Disney).

9. Magic Kingdom Fireworks

In 2017, a major change came to the Magic Kingdom. One that was heralded as fantastic by some fans but had others crying sad tears. This was the year that the Wishes, A Magical Gathering of Disney Dreams fireworks show bid us farewell, and its replacement, Happily Ever After, debuted. 

I know this year because I have the commemorative ornament for Wishes hanging on my bulletin board (along with the Tervis in my cabinet and the T-shirt in my drawer—can you tell which side I’m on?). 

new years at walt disney world resort florida fourth of july fireworks show cinderella castle

Credit: Disney

Related: Could Drones Be Featured in Disney World’s Nighttime Show?

Wishes was a classic; however, it only debuted in 2003, giving it a run of 14 years. Its predecessor, Fantasy in the Sky, ran for 32 years before Wishes! While Wishes incorporated Disney music with fireworks and a touching original song, Happily Ever After added new projection technology to portray the Disney movies on Cinderella Castle. 

Happily Ever After also updated some of the films to include newer releases and a new, trendy “pop” theme song. I appreciate Happily Ever After for what it is (& I love that it includes Moana), but I do “wish” they would bring back Wishes for a special performance.

Thankfully, Disney acted quickly, as you may remember, for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary (2021), a new nighttime spectacular called Disney Enchantment replaced Happily Ever After. Fans shared their disappointment in the new show, and Disney returned Happily Ever After to appease park guests. 

8. Disney Princesses

Did you know there is some controversy about who qualifies as a Disney Princess

Some are cut and dried: Cinderella has a noble background and marries a prince. Check. She’s in. Sleeping Beauty is the daughter of a King who marries a Prince. Check. She’s in. Ariel is the daughter of King Triton and marries a Prince. Check. She’s in. 

cinderella and prince charming, disneyland sweethearts nite

Credit: Disney

Mulan? Hmm…  Mulan is not the daughter of royalty. She doesn’t marry into royalty. So, although Mulan is very worthy of elevated status due to her qualities of loyalty, honor, and heroism, Disney’s powers that be (probably those in merchandising) have donned her as a Princess among the likes of Snow White (married a Prince) and Rapunzel (daughter of a King & Queen). 

Two other “Princesses” are also debatable: Pocahontas and Moana.

Both are the daughters of the village chief (Moana even points this out to us multiple times). That might be considered a type of royalty, but it may not fit into the Western definition of a Princess. There is no doubt that both Pocahontas and Moana possess an independent spirit, respect for nature, and courage that make them individuals who we can look up to.

disney princess hospital visit

Credit: Disney Parks

On Disney’s official Princess website, they include Raya, Tiana, Moana, Mulan, Belle, Pocahontas, Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Merida, Jasmine, Aurora, and Ariel. Interestingly, the site doesn’t include Queen Elsa or Princess Anna from Frozen (2013).

7. We Wants the Redhead!

For many years, the Auctioneer scene in Pirates of the Caribbean attraction featured a male pirate auctioning off women.

Up on the auction block was a woman who he goaded to “Weigh anchor now, ya swabbies. What be I offered for this winsome wench? Stout ‘arted and corn fed she be…”  “Hey, are you selling her by the pound?” “Shift yer cargo, dearie, show ’em your larboard side.” 

Meanwhile, the bidding pirates had their eyes on the voluptuous redhead shouting, “We Wants the Redhead!” 

ghost pirates of the caribbean haunted

Credit: Disney/ Canva

This scene was controversial in the way it portrayed women and in a culture where human trafficking is a very real problem. Despite the possible historical context, the scene was problematic. Disney Imagineers reimagined the scene with a new version of the auction and a new redhead, Redd the Pirate.

In the updated scene, townspeople are lined up to let the pirates auction off their valued possessions. The woman formerly being auctioned is holding hens that are now being sold off. Redd is now hassling the auctioneer, “Oh, quit yer cluckin’; the gentlemen want the rum, don’t ya boys?”  To which the response is an overwhelming, “We Wants the Rum!”  The change itself was not without controversy, however.

At the 2017 D23 Expo in Anaheim, the announcement of the change was met with boos from the fans in the crowd. Disney fans take the change to these classic attractions hard. But replacing the controversial scene with a strong female character is a much-needed change in this attraction.

6. Closing of Pleasure Island      

Pleasure Island started its life as an adult entertainment “island” in Downtown Disney. It opened in 1989 with popular venues that included the legendary Adventurer’s Club. In 2008, it was announced that Pleasure Island would close its doors as a part of the refurbishing that turned the area into what eventually became Disney Springs. 

There was a lot of disappointment and backlash from fans of the area. As the only area in Disney designated for adults, that response was warranted. The fans of the Adventurer’s Club (which had developed a cult following of sorts) were particularly vocal in their objections to the change. Now that Disney Springs is complete, many people feel that the changes were an improvement to the overall Walt Disney World experience.

But, while some more adult venues like The Edison, Enzo’s Hideaway, and Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar were added (all with great theming), a lot of people still feel that Disney Springs is lacking what it had back when Pleasure Island was open.

5. Disney Vacation Club at The Polynesian Village Resort

Everyone has a favorite Disney Resort. The Polynesian Resort is ranked top among many fans, and its status as one of the two original resort hotels at Walt Disney World makes it a sentimental favorite. So, in 2013, when it was announced that Disney Vacation Club would be coming to the resort, there was an outcry from troubled Disney fans.

Disney Vacation Club is a timeshare arm of the Disney Company that sells timeshare points. When they brought these villas to the Polynesian, they overtook several existing longhouses (including a favorite Tokelau). The more controversial decision was to place 20 over-the-water bungalows along the resort’s waterfront. 

Disney Polynesian Village Resort

Credit: Disney

These Bora Bora Bungalows would take over some popular areas of the resort, including a spot that was a favorite for proposals and weddings, and in the end, would block or interrupt the Theme Park/Magic Kingdom View from some of the existing longhouses on the property.

The positives here are that the Studio villas that went into the longhouses are very well designed and great for families; the bungalows, if you have the means to stay in one, are nice with private plunge pools; and the refurbished “quiet” pool and splash pad that came along with Disney Vacation Club are an upgrade.

Disney's Polynesian Village Resort Tower Art Rendering

Credit: Disney

While this decision to add Disney Vacation Club villas remains fairly controversial at the Polynesian, Disney didn’t stop there. Currently, Disney is building a massive tower in the former location of the Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show. The tower will have hundreds of rooms, but fans feature the Polynesian is losing its intimate touch.

4.  One Little Spark

On my first trip to Walt Disney World, I fell in love with EPCOT (this was in 1987). And one of my favorite attractions was Journey into Imagination. It literally captured my imagination. I can still smell the flower room. The biggest part of its appeal was the created characters for the attraction: Dreamfinder & Figment. 

In 1999, the attraction changed to Journey Into Your Imagination, and Figment was relegated to a very small part of the attraction at the end. As you can imagine (no pun intended), fans of the attraction and that cute purple dragon were very upset.

Figment with Spaceship Earth

After closing again in 2001, the attraction reopened as Journey into Your Imagination WITH Figment. Still not up to par with the amazing original attraction and missing most of the post-ride entertainment from the first version, the inclusion of more Figment was a step in the right direction.

Figment fans who have feared his permanent disappearance have been happy with his inclusion in more and more merchandise at EPCOT, including being a mascot for many of the park’s seasonal Festivals. Figment has since soared in popularity

3. Hooray for Hollywood?

I was at Walt Disney World when the 2017 D23 Expo announced that the Great Movie Ride would close permanently in a few weeks to make way for a brand-new Mickey & Minnie Mouse-themed attraction. The Great Movie Ride was MY thing at Hollywood Studios.

When it was announced, I went back and rode it a few times by myself, making sure I got both the gangster and cowboy scenes. This was a classic ride full of what Disney did so well—immersive scenes full of audio-animatronics. And it was the theme of Hollywood Studios, the classic Hollywood movies from the Golden Era.

Credit: D23

Closing it to add an attraction that seemingly had nothing to do with the park’s theme seemed counter to the way Disney does things. It was adding existing Intellectual Property into the park as an attraction rather than creating something original in theme (see Animal Kingdom’s Pandora using IP rather than an original concept, and #2 below). 

I must admit that riding Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway is fun, but I contend (with many other fans) that the original Great Movie Ride was a better fit in this park thematically.

2. World Showcase or World of Disney Showcase?

It started creeping in quietly… characters and Disney Intellectual Property becoming part of World Showcase.

First, it was the characters in each pavilion that would be their “home” (or close to it) country. The Kim Possible then Perry Mission games (no longer there). El Rio del Tiempo in the Mexico Pavilion was replaced by The Gran Fiesta Tour starring the Three Caballeros.

Epcot Norway Maelstrom Sign FastPass and Standby Entrance

Credit: Disney Dining

But the big controversy came when the Maelstrom in Norway closed its doors to be revamped into a full-blown Frozen attraction featuring Princess Anna and Queen Elsa.

Fans went crazy; they felt it was unnecessary to add Disney characters to the pavilions rather than highlight the country’s history and culture. Disney wanted to capitalize on the immense popularity of these characters and appeal more to families, so Frozen Ever After was born. 

So there is a push and pull between the traditional “Retrocot” fans who want to maintain the authenticity, Disney’s need to appeal to the masses, and the guests who want to see more characters in EPCOT.  

In 2021, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure opened in France, adding another character-themed attraction to a country pavilion. That attraction was preceded by the addition of a Beauty & the Beast Sing-Along movie that shows the opposite of Impressions de France, the more traditional cultural exploration of the country.  

remy's ratatouille adventure

Credit: Becky Burkett

The replacement of the nighttime fireworks show Illuminations, titled HarmonioUS, also relied heavily on Disney IP. Now, EPCOT’s nighttime spectacular, Luminous The Symphony of Us, has a blend of the Disney IP and EPCOT World Showcase homage. 

The debate continues on this one.

1. Farewell Splash Mountain

I saved the biggest controversy for last. The Walt Disney World version of Splash Mountain at Magic Kingdom opened in 1992. From the ride’s opening day to its closing in January 2023, it was themed to represent the 1946 film Song of the South.

The film itself has never been released in the US on home video format due to the offensive portrayals of African Americans in the South during the Reconstruction/Post-Civil War Era. The film and the ride are based on the Joel Chandler Harris adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories featuring Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Brer Rabbit.

Splash Mountain Magic Kingdom Disney World woke

Credit: Disney

Controversy over the movie began from the time of its release with criticism of the African American stereotypes portrayed in the film and the glorification of a serene plantation setting. However, in the mid-1980s, Disney Imagineers decided this was the best theme for Splash Mountain, which would be set in the Bear Country area of Disneyland and Frontierland in Walt Disney World. 

In 2020, the long-held debate about the appropriateness of the Brer Rabbit theme to the attraction ended. Disney Imagineers announced the retheming to a Princess and the Frog theme. With this new theme, a strong African American character, Princess Tiana, would be featured along with the alligator Louis on a musical adventure (after the kiss-so in her human form, not as a frog).

tiana's bayou adventure

Credit: Disney Parks

Disney stated, “The retheming of Splash Mountain is of particular importance today. The new concept is inclusive – one that all of our guests can connect with and be inspired by, and it speaks to the diversity of the millions of people who visit our parks each year.” 

Splash Mountain’s replacement, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, will open in the summer of 2024.

On which side of these controversies at Walt Disney World do you fall? Let us know in the comments! 

About Sarah Chapman

I am a long time Disney fan since I was hooked on Walt Disney World with my first trip in 1987. Since that time I’ve tried experiencing everything I can in the parks, with a total of 30 visits and counting (I’m always planning my next trip) to Walt Disney World—not to mention Disney Cruise Line and even (shhh!) Universal Orlando and Sea World. I’ve turned my Disney obsession into a profession helping others plan their magical vacations as a Dream Vacation Maker at LBAC Travel. I am a work at home mom to three wonderful boys, and each one has been properly indoctrinated with all things Disney. Walt Disney World is definitely our “Laughing Place.” Look for me on Facebook at Facebook.com/SarahLBAC for updates, discount announcements, tips, tricks and planning advice for your next vacation. You can also find me on Instagram (sarahdreamvacationmaker) and Pinterest (sarahlbactravel).