10 Biggest Controversies at Walt Disney World

Controversy. That is a word we have learned a lot about over the past year.  Even the most Magical Place on Earth is not spared from its share of controversy.  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 of the controversies that involve Walt Disney World.


10.  The Must Eat Treat

Among Walt Disney World guests there are two distinct camps:  Team Dole Whip and Team Mickey Bar.  These groups are divided by their unrelenting love of a particular sweet treat that 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.  And multiple versions of the Dole Whip are now available including those spiked with alcohol, the Dole Whip float with juice (my personal 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 a Mickey 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 do taste better at Disney).

9.  The Ending of a Day at Magic Kingdom

In 2017 a major change came to the Magic Kingdom. One that was heralded as amazing and 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 T-Shirt in my drawer—can you tell which side I’m on?).  Wishes was a classic; however, it only debuted in 2003 giving it a run of 14 years.  It’s predecessor Fantasy in the Sky ran for 32 years prior to Wishes!  While Wishes incorporated Disney music with fireworks and a touching original song, Happily Ever After took it a step further adding the new projection technology to portray the Disney movies on the 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.

Happily Ever After

8.  Princesses

Did you know there is some controversy about how actually qualifies as a Disney Princess?  Some are very cut & dried:  Cinderella has a noble background and marries a prince.  Check.  She’s in.  Sleeping Beauty.  Daughter of a King, Marries a Prince.  Check.  She’s in.  Ariel.  Daughter of King Triton, Marries a Prince.  Check.  She’s in.  Mulan.  Hmmmm.  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 Princess.  There is no doubt that both Pocahontas and Moana possess and independent spirit, respect of nature, and courage that make them individuals who we can look up to.

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7.  We Wants the Redhead!

For many years, the Auctioneer scene in Pirates of the Caribbean 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 red head shouting “We Wants the Redhead!”  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 re-imagined 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 who was 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 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 eventually what became Disney Springs.  There was a lot of disappointment and backlash from fans of the area.  As the only area in Disney that was 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 a positive 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 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 time share arm of the Disney Company that sells time share points.  When they brought these villas to the Polynesian they overtook several of the existing longhouses (including a favorite Tokelau).  The more controversial decision was to place 20 over the water bungalows along the waterfront of the resort.  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 really nice with private plunge pools; and the refurbished “quiet” pool and splash pad that came along with Disney Vacation Club are an upgrade.  This decision to add Disney Vacation Club villas remains fairly controversial at the Polynesian.

4.  One Little Spark

On my very 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 were 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 in the attraction at the end.  As you can imagine (no pun intended), fans of the attraction & that cute purple dragon were very upset.  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, but 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 parks seasonal Festivals.

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 just 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 that was 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.  Closing it to add an attraction that seemingly had nothing to do with the theme of the park 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 will have to admit since riding Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, it is a very fun ride, 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.  But the big controversy came when the Maelstrom in Norway closed its doors to be revamped into a full-blown Frozen attraction featuring Anna & Elsa.  Fans went crazy, they felt it was unnecessary to add Disney characters to the pavilions over highlighting the country’s history and culture.  Disney wanted to capitalize on the immense popularity of these characters and appeal more to families.  So there is a push and pull between the traditional “Retrocot” fans who want to maintain the authenticity, and 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 will open in France adding another character themed attraction to a country pavilion.  That attraction was preceded by adding a Beauty & the Beast Sing Along movie that shows opposite of Impressions de France, the more traditional cultural exploration of the country.  It appears from the previews of HarmonioUS fireworks that it too will rely heavily on Disney IP (once it opens) . . . so the debate continues.

1.  Splash Mountain

I saved the biggest controversy for last.  Splash Mountain is found in three of Disney’s theme parks worldwide.  The Walt Disney World version in Magic Kingdom opened in 1992.  From the ride’s opening day up to now 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. 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 the Disney Imagineers decided this was the best theme to use in Splash Mountain that would be set in 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 came to an end. Disney Imagineers announced the retheming to a Princess and the Frog theme. With this new theme a strong African American character, 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).  In June the Disney Parks Blog stated,  “the re-theming 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.”  To date there has not been an announcement on when Splash Mountain will close for the changes or when it will reopen as the Tiana themed attractions. 

On which side of these debates do you fall?

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).