The Disney influence

What amazes me the most about the story of Disney is the number of setbacks and perceived failures that have occurred throughout the company’s nearly 100 years and yet it has continued to grow from humble cartoon beginnings into the empire it is today. I think there are some lessons in this for everyone. 

In 1923 brothers Walt and Roy Disney started the company that would become the Walt Disney Company (Disney). Disney has developed into one of the most recognised and successful brands in the world (Cliffe 2020 and Jones 2021) bringing in over $65 billion in revenue in the 2020 fiscal year (WDC 2021c).   

As described in Bodden (2009), the company had to overcome numerous financial difficulties, issues with ownership rights, staff strikes, World War II, a disastrous opening and bad reviews for the first Disneyland theme park, movies that cost more than they made initially, and 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Disney theme parks were closed for much of 2020 due to COVID-19 but we are now seeing them come back from this setback as well.   

While the mouse didn’t appear until 1928 it is the symbol for which Disney became known around the world (Bodden 2009). Its popularity came after Disney took a risk on creating the world’s first cartoon with sound, with Mickey voiced by Walt himself. The company’s early success appears to owe a lot to Walt’s willingness to take risks and push the boundaries, never content to settle he was reportedly constantly wanting to make improvements to the parks and productions.   

While this early success could be said to have been due to the creative vision, enthusiasm and determination of Walt himself, the company is now so much larger than any one individual and has had a number of different leaders. Now a company with over 200,000 employees it still maintains the vision and ability to lead the way, adapting and growing with the times, delivering quality family entertainment.    

As such a large and successful company, it is not surprising that the literature on Disney ranges between applauding its business acumen to accusing it of cultural imperialism. Wasko (2001) challenges some of the assumptions about Disney, the man and the myth. The general public perception though seems to be more positive. Wasko et al. (2001) surveyed university students across 18 countries and their description of the perceived core values of Disney were almost unanimously consistent. Some of the key words associated with Disney were family, fun and fantasy and the respondents demonstrated strong brand loyalty.  Even many of those critiquing the role of Disney in shaping society have acknowledged an appreciation for Disney products.   

In Budd and Kirsch (2005) amongst others, Disney is criticised for its strong capitalist approach to expansion being contrary to the values it espouses, but is it? If the Disney values are consistently recognised around the world isn’t it also reinforcing this message with each acquisition.    

In the academic literature Disney has been represented through the lens of ‘disneyfication’, a concept that is part of wider debates that critique perceived processes of sanitisation and subsequent loss of authenticity instigated by consumerism (Bryman 2004). It is also represented through the concept of ‘disneyization’, whereby the trends of theming, dedifferentiation of consumption, merchandising and emotional labour have spread around the world partly due to how successfully they are applied in the Disney theme parks (Bryman 1999).    

If we flip the context of this story though, couldn’t the strong influential power of Disney also be used to make positive changes in consumerism and consumer behaviour. With approximately 62 million visitors in 2019 and a global reach with theme parks, merchandise and entertainment, the consumers of which mostly associate Disney with a positive experience, Disney has the potential to influence the actions of a lot of consumers and suppliers.    

What if this influence was used to improve waste management practices and encouraged consumers to refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle? I acknowledge the apparent contradiction of a publicly listed company, which benefits financially from the capitalist principles of consumerism, encouraging anyone to refuse a purchase but that consumption can be done with less waste? What if the kind of innovative approach to urban planning that Walt Disney applied in designing the theme parks (King 1981) was used to design out waste and encourage better consumer choices?   

Disneyfication is being heralded as the basis for modern design of shopping malls and sports stadia (Budd and Kirsch 2005) so perhaps it can also influence how these spaces deal with waste. Disney and Disney Imagineering have massive potential to create and innovate. If this power was used to rethink the approach to waste management, how much progress could be made in not only reducing the consumption of single-use plastics and disposable items for food service but making the most of recycled materials so we are not using virgin plastics. And who better to communicate the message. 

Disney theme parks are regularly described as the “happiest place on earth”. They are places of nostalgia and dreams, happy places where people are invited to relive memories and imagine the future (King 1981; Gottdiener 1982). Evidence in environmental psychology shows that it is through optimism and joy that people are able to learn and create solutions to solve problems (Patrick 2019). I surmise then that whilst visiting a Disney theme park people are more susceptible to accepting and coming up with creative solutions to environmental concerns, such as waste management.     

Disney theme parks like Epcot and Disney’s Animal Kingdom make discussion of environmental concerns part of the guest experience (in the Disney universe visitors are all guests). At both of these theme parks there are multiple rides and shows that include issues of sustainability, conservation and waste management. Yet when I visited in late 2019 and early 2020, it wasn’t possible to have my reusable coffee cup refilled at food service locations in either park. Many of the cast (staff) offered to give me a disposable cup that I could then tip into my reusable cup, which obviously defeats the purpose.  

As described by Hermanson (2005), in building Animal Kingdom Disney risked getting involved in environmental politics in relation to the appropriate care of animals, many of which are threatened in the wild. It continues this foray into environmental politics in the messaging it provides throughout the park. Hermanson (2005) suggests the environmental messaging does not reflect the park’s own practices. Rather the apparent immersion in nature and environmentalism is co-opted for entertainment and marketing purposes. Hermanson (2005) notes that Disney promotes our ability to change the world but doesn’t ask us to do very much about it. Guests leave the park having heard environmental messages and feeling like they have contributed without changing any behaviours.   

Clearly my example with the disposable cups reflects this position, but I believe so much more can be achieved. I am confident that there are some very dedicated individuals working behind the scenes of Disney who are serious about delivering on its environmental goals. Obviously there is still some work to be done though.  

Disney’s well publicised commitment to Social Responsibility includes Environmental Sustainability with substantial targets for reducing waste. According to Disney it has eliminated single-use plastic straws and stirrers at all owned and operated locations across the globe and is transitioning to refillable in-room amenities in Disney hotels and cruise ships. Recycled bottles from the Walt Disney World Resort were reportedly used to create 50% recycled fibres that were then used in the production of Disney clothing (WDC 2021a). Disney’s 2030 target is for the wholly owned and operated parks and resorts to have zero waste to landfill (this excludes the parks in Japan, Hong Kong, and China) (WDC 2021b).   

I appreciate that the Social Responsibility goals are not necessarily altruistic. There is undoubtedly some commercial value as there is in almost any sustainability measure, it’s the hook that is usually used to convince industry of the benefits. Hermanson (2005) states that Disney’s Nature Conservancy agreement is an environmental mitigation measure to offset the near-blanket planning approval that Disney has for 20 years development on its property. Further research is required to understand if this is appropriate compensation and whether the benefits to nature outweigh any damage caused by the development. From the outside there appear to be some impressive projects being achieved through this partnership.  

With Disney’s strong brand loyalty, apparent concern for the environment and willingness to constantly improve and innovate, I believe it could lead improvements in waste management – both by cutting out the use of single-use plastics and making use of recycled materials in the longer life items.  

References and reading list  

Bodden, V. (2009) The Story of Disney, Saunders Book Company, Canada.  

Bryman, A. (1999) ‘The Disneyization of Society’, The Sociological Review, pp.25-47   

Bryman, A. (2004) The Disneyization of Society, SAGE Publications Ltd.  

Budd, M. and Kirsch M.H. (eds) (2005) Rethinking Disney: Private control, public dimensions, Wesleyan University Press.  

Cliffe, C. (2020) Top 10 most recognisable brands in the world, accessed on 21 April 2021 at–200217   

Gottdiener, M. (1982) “Disneyland; A Utopian Urban Space”, Urban Life, 1 July 1982 11:2: pp139-162, Periodicals Archive Online.   

Hermanson, S. (2005) ‘Truer than life: Disney’s Animal Kingdom’ pp 199-227 in Budd, M. and Kirsch M.H. (eds) Rethinking Disney: Private control, public dimensions, Wesleyan University Press.  

Jones, K. (2021) The top 50 most valuable global brands, accessed on 21 April 2021 at   

King, M.J. (1981) ‘Disneyland and Walt Disney World: Traditional Values in Futuristic Form’, Journal of Popular Culture: Summer 1981; 15:1 Periodicals Archive Online pp:116-140.  

Patrick, K.M. (2019) How to Save the World. Hello World Labs, San Francisco.  

The Walt Disney Company (WDC) (2021a) 2020 Corporate Social Responsibility Report, accessed on 11 May 2021 at .  

The Walt Disney Company (WDC) (2021b) 2030 Environmental Goals, accessed on 11 May 2021 at .  

The Walt Disney Company (WDC) (2021c) Fiscal year 2020 annual financial report, accessed on 2 May 2021 at   

Wasko, J. (2001) “Challenging Disney Myths”, Journal of Communication Inquiry,  25 (3): 237-257  

Wasko, J., Phillips, M. and Meehan E.R. (eds) (2001) Dazzled by Disney? The global Disney audiences project. Leicester University Press.  

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