10 Dark Moments from Disney’s Past

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Disney is known for being one of the most family-friendly companies you could imagine, and spends an incredible amount of money to maintain that illusion and appear as one of the most squeaky clean companies in the world. Disney is the company that bought Star Wars, and immediately banned the appearance of smoking in films – villain or otherwise – because of the children.

However, while today Disney tries their hardest to be the most non-offensive thing possible, this wasn’t always the case. In the past, Disney hasn’t always been entirely family-friendly, and their past is checkered with racism and other abuses. Disney himself may not have necessarily been a racist or a misogynist, but he was certainly not progressive for his time, and his attitudes were reflected in the culture of his company and the products they produced.  

10. Walt Disney’s Song of the South Was Not Just a Product of It’s Time

If you haven’t heard of it before, Song of the South is a Disney movie made back in the 1940s that has caused such controversy that Disney has kept it in the vault for decades now and has no intention of ever allowing it to see the light of day again. The movie has caused trouble since it was first released because of its depiction of African American characters. The movie is set on a plantation in the south, and it seems that it is post Civil War, but it’s very ambiguous. There are still a lot of black people working on the plantation, and while they are not called slaves, they have very subservient attitudes and speak in a way that seems designed to make them look less intelligent – not only that, but they seem very happy about their lot, which is working for white people.

Disney only really likes to release movies from the vault when they can celebrate it, and show off an image of squeaky cleanness. Song of the South not only doesn’t allow that, but it creates unnecessary controversy and potentially lost customers and image. Of course, there will always be people who defend the actions of Walt Disney to make this movie back in the day, and say that he was just a product of his time. However, those who knew Walt at the time understood that he knew full well all the possible controversies he could create, but he wanted to go ahead and make it anyway. Some accounts even say Walt actually downplayed the racial stereotypes some from what he originally planned because he didn’t think it would go over well. This doesn’t necessarily paint him as racist, but it does show he cared more about telling a story than any kind of racial sensitivity.  

9. Disney Underpaid His Employees, Causing Them to Go On Strike and Changing Animation Forever

In the early days of the Disney company, things were not really very well organized, and Walt was just trying to get as many good ideas as possible, and move things forward at a brisk pace. He had hired on a lot of animators to do creative work, and the company expanded faster than he really knew how to deal with. This led to a very serious issue where Walt’s disorganization and greed really got him in trouble. He underpaid most of his animators to begin with, and then would give raises in very arbitrary ways. People would randomly be given more pay with little reason or explanation, and no one really knew what you exactly had to do to earn more. After dealing with this for a bit, the animators started to get tired of having their creative talents abused, and went on strike.

Walt was not really interested in negotiating with them, and instead tried to beat it out and fight them on it. The animators formed guild to protect themselves, and after several weeks of intense picketing and the like, Walt was forced by a lot of outside pressure to give in and pay people fairly. However, laws for dealing with employer retaliation were not very good back then, and Walt held a very serious grudge. He was pretty awful to be around if you had been part of the strike, and before long he was firing people when possible, and many just departed on their own. This actually led many to create their own studios, and many other talented artists to go into comics. The Looney Tunes and many comics and other animation were designed by animators who left Disney, and likely would have never had their designs properly see the light of day under Walt’s leadership. In the end, his hardline stance against fair pay actually indirectly helped change the world of animation for the better.

8. The Yippie Invasion of Disneyland in the 1970s Caused the Disney Company to Overreact

In August of 1970, a group of radical hippies known as yippies had a plan to invade Disneyland on the 6th of the month. They passed out hundreds of thousands of flyers and the rumors started flying around that 200,000 of the counterculture youth intended to invade the park. Disneyland reacted to this by asking the local police to show up, and they arrived that day in full riot gear expecting a huge crowd. Instead, only a couple hundred of the yippies actually showed up, but they still caused quite a bit of a problem.

At first they were just doing silly things like smoking marijuana while climbing on things, but they started to get restless and get into fights with some of the park guests. As the day wore on, they “took over” Tom Sawyer Island, by standing on Castle Rock and doing drugs. Near the end of the day they disrupted the Disney marching band, and raised a gigantic flag with a pot leaf on it next to the American flag. This caused things to spiral quickly out of control between the yippies and regular guests, causing Disney management to be so upset with the situation that they shut the park down early for the first in their history. As an overreaction to the entire situation, Disney instated a dress code for men that they kept for years – if you had long hair or otherwise looked like a hippie, you would be barred from entering the theme park. Disney may be the first major company to ever actually ban all hippies from their property.

7. The Original Pirates of the Caribbean Ride Had Real Human Skeletons

Pirates of the Caribbean is a successful movie franchise that has now long overstayed its welcome; however, it was all based on the popular ride at Disneyland that was originally designed back in the 1960s. Walt Disney was very pleased with the ride itself and loved what they had done with it. However, some of the designers were disappointed that despite how realistic the rest of the ride looked, the skeletons just didn’t look real enough to them. In order to solve this problem, they contacted the UCLA medical center and managed to get their hands on some real human skeletons to decorate the ride.

As time has passed, the ride has been regularly renovated and Disney claims all human remains have been removed and given proper burials in their country of origin. The technology for fake skeletons is good enough now that they can make them as realistic as the real thing, so it really isn’t necessary or in good taste to have real human remains lying around anymore. However, some people are not convinced. People have gone through the ride looking at the skeletons in an attempt to armchair sleuth which ones might still be real, and some employees claim they are certain some of them are. If there are any real bones still lying around the ride, we may never really know the truth for sure.

6. In the Early Days, Walt Disney Didn’t Allow Women to Do Full Animating Work for the Company

A letter that has been passed around the internet shows a rejection in Snow White stationary, answering a young woman who had applied to Disney in the hopes of working in their creative department. This letter has been verified as the real deal, and shows just how behind the times Disney was, even for the era in which it was written. The form letter states that women are not allowed to do any of the creative work at Disney, and that all of that is done by “young men.” The letter further goes on to explain that women can work at Disney, but only doing inking and tracing.

As if to add insult to injury, the form letter explains that a young woman who wishes to apply for inking or tracing should bring samples of their work to show, but actually discourages her from applying, stating that so many women apply for the inking and tracing positions that she likely would not be selected anyway. While some would say this was only a product of the times, it’s really hard to defend this at any time. Even back then, while women may not have gotten the fair pay or respect they deserved, most people were well aware that women could do creative things just as well as men could.

5. Disney Would Like You to Forget About the Wizard of Bras

Disney loves being known for their squeaky clean image, so they really don’t want you to know about some of the things they tried in Disneyland in their early days. They would especially love it if you didn’t remember that they once had a shop in Disneyland that sold bras and corsets. Not only that, but it had 3D exhibits that showed women off in a way that was scantily clad for the time, and gave people a general history on undergarments. It also had a section of the shop called a corseteria where you bought all of the undergarments.

And in the middle of all this chaos was an animatronic sorcerer dubbed “the Wizard of Bras.” It should probably be no surprise that Disney did not keep this abomination around long and it was gone in about six months. However, it was not the only time Disney allowed an attempt at a sexy lingerie store on the Disneyland grounds. In the 1990s they allowed a store called “Jessica’s” to set up shop. This was a store dedicated to selling Jessica Rabbit-themed merchandise, especially underwear and night wear – it also folded after a short time, lasting just three years. Since then, Disneyland has not attempted any more sexy lingerie stores on the park grounds.

4. Disney Doesn’t Want You to Know How Long They’ve Been Covering Up the Alligator Problem

Last year there was a huge controversy after a 2-year-old boy died at Disney World following an alligator attack. Disney came under fire for not warning people properly of the alligators, and people cried out that Disney should have put up warning signs at the very least, since they had some idea that alligators could potentially make it to certain spots in the park. Disney caved and put up warning signs, and most people have forgotten about it. However, the truth is that Disney wouldn’t do the bare minimum to warn people because they didn’t want to break their illusion, when they know the problem is much worse than most people realize.

As of last year, Disney had removed 240 nuisance alligators – alligators four feet or longer with the potential to cause harm – from their Disney World resort properties. This is an average of 24 alligators per year, or two per month, and that’s just the ones they actually catch. Florida is basically a swamp and with so many waterways, it’s very easy for them to find their way into Disney World. If Disney were being responsible, they should have warned people much sooner of the dangers, and maybe even put up stronger fencing in certain areas. Unfortunately, their commitment to maintaining the sense of illusion for their customers sometimes overwhelms their common sense.

3. Walt Disney’s Involvement with the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals

In the late 1930s the fear of communism was starting to take hold in the average American, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities had been formed. This committee existed to check into the backgrounds of Americans suspected of having communist ties or sympathies, and has been denounced in history as a witch hunt that was often racist in nature when selecting what people to go after. It was in this political environment that in the mid 1940s, a bunch of famous movie stars and filmmakers, including Walt Disney, got together to make their own group called the Motion Picture Alliance For The Preservation Of American Ideals.

The group was basically the film guild version of the House Committee On Un-American Activities, and before long people from the film industry were, indeed, being inspected by the house committee. This led to a backlash where a counter group of others in the film industry created their own guild called the Council Of Hollywood Guilds And Unions to protect themselves against the attacks from the Motion Picture Alliance, often called the MPA for short.  The new guild accused the MPA of being racist and just looking to inflame tensions and cause trouble – an accusation that has stuck in most people’s minds to this day. It is hard to say whether Walt was really being racist here or if he was genuinely concerned about communism and overreacted, as many did at the time. However, he was deeply involved in the group, as he was their vice president when they formed.  

2. Disneyland in Paris has had a Recent History of Mistreating and Underpaying Its Employees

Disneyland Paris is supposed to be the happiest place in Europe, as the Disney vision goes, and for many tourists it is indeed a very fun attraction. It’s known so well for fulfilling that promise to guests that it is the single most popular tourist attraction in Europe, despite all the rich history that is available to see on the continent. However, while it is great for the tourists, the employee experience is anything but, and over time that will degrade the guest experience as well. Back in 2010 the Independent did a piece on Disneyland Paris, and found some very alarming issues.

Two employees had recently committed suicide, and one of them killed himself in a rather disturbing way. He had been sick and missed work as a cook at Disney and was supposed to go back. Before killing himself, he scrawled on the wall in French “I don’t want to work for Mickey anymore.” The parent company, Euro Disney, has been criticized for huge staff and budget cuts, while continuing to take in an even bigger influx of guests. And to make matters worse, the staff members who are expected to do more with less every year have essentially no opportunities for advancement. Not only that, but most people are being paid only barely above minimum wage, and are expected to work six days a week and very long hours. For many who work for Disney, the fun is being part of the Disney family. However, for those working at Disneyland Paris, they are being treated as anything but.

1. Disney’s Fantasia has a Character Named Sunflower Who is a Breathtakingly Racist Stereotype

Most of you have probably heard of Fantasia, but many people are really only familiar with the segment where Mickey is the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, unless they are a big Disney buff. And even those who have watched Fantasia in full may have missed Disney’s most blatant racism if they watched a more recent revision. A lesser known segment of Fantasia is called “Pastoral Symphony” and was a brief story where mythological creatures and others are preparing for a festival involving some of the Greek gods. The story starts out showing some female centaurs being beautified by cherubs to prepare them for the arrival of the male centaurs and it just goes downhill from there.

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There is one female centaur who is not being prepared by the cherubs, and is instead acting like a servant to the other female centaurs – brushing their tails, etc. This female centaur is black, and is half donkey instead of half horse. She has incredibly exaggerated features, and dreadlocks that stick out at odd angles, as if the animators were doing their best to mock people of African descent. To make matters worse, this character is called Sunflower – a flower whose nicknames include “n**gerhead.” While sunflowers do have a lot of other nicknames, it seems a little too strange to just be a coincidence. Also, in a later scene, the Greek god of wine, Bacchus, shows up flanked by two black centaur servants, who are half zebra and half Amazon looking – their purpose is to fan him and keep him cool. In revisions of Fantasia, these racist elements have been removed, but you can see a brief clip of Sunflower brushing a pretty, white female centaur at the top of the entry.


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