Cultural infrastructures and environmental behaviours: A Disney case study

Michelle Whitmore, Higher Degree Research Candidate
Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University


As one of the world’s largest media and entertainment companies, the Walt Disney Company has established a complex and wide-reaching cultural infrastructure. In doing so, Disney has been accused of cultural imperialism. The Disney brand and values are widely recognised by a global audience. It’s films and merchandise span the globe and provide pop culture icons. Disney theme parks provide the physical infrastructure for a defined cultural experience in five countries. A less explored part of this story is that the Disney cultural infrastructure would not be possible without the growth of plastics. Most of the theme park structures are made of plastic and the merchandise, food and drink often have plastic packaging. In continuing to use and provide plastics, Disney perpetuates the normalcy of plastic practices. The cultural effects of the theme parks extend beyond the park boundaries into areas of urban design, planning, and consumerism. Disneyization refers to how Disney theme parks exemplify commercial practices that have spread across retail and leisure markets. Disney’s Corporate Social Responsibility strategy has a commitment to eliminate waste to landfill from the wholly owned and operated theme parks by 2030. This covers the parks in the United States and France. These countries have quite different approaches to managing plastic waste, with recycling figures significantly higher in Europe than North America. Disney will have to shift the practices of its staff and guests in both countries to achieve zero waste to landfill. If it can successfully reduce single-use plastics and enable improved sorting and recycling or reuse of plastic products in the parks it could result in a shift in the assumed norms for plastic practices in multiple commercial spaces. This paper will explore how the cultural infrastructure of Disney theme parks could influence plastic practices for better environmental outcomes.

Disney, cultural infrastructure, and environmental outcomes

In their book Climate Change and Museum Futures, Cameron and Neilson (2014) demonstrate the importance of museums and other cultural institutions in sharing knowledge and contributing to the public discourse on climate change. Salazar (2014) notes that media is the main source through which the public obtains information on climate change. The critical benefit of cultural institutions is the ability to engage the public through creative and affective experiences. Cameron et al. (2014:263) state that, to address global issues, museums need to rely less on information and more on experiences, focussing on emotions that balance ‘joy, wonder and delight’ rather than just ‘fear and guilt’.

Like these other cultural institutions, the Walt Disney Company (Disney) has a role to play in encouraging more environmentally friendly behaviours. The Disney mission and the values of the Disney brand, indicate that experiences built on joy and delight is something that Disney theme parks can excel at; indeed, they are often described as the happiest places on earth. Disney messaging is distributed through the experiences in the theme parks and across the multitude of news and entertainment programs that Disney controls. The Disney cultural infrastructure has access to a broad network of sponsors and partners that are capable of initiating and promoting changes in plastic practices. If it continues to provide single-use plastics, Disney perpetuates the normalcy of existing plastic practices.

Disney has all the attributes of a theoretically powerful actor in leading people towards more environmentally responsible plastic practices. Disney is a powerful storyteller; it has influence and control over behaviours; strong brand loyalty; an apparent concern for the environment; and a willingness to constantly improve and innovate. If the creative and innovative capacity of Disney Imagineering were applied to rethinking the approach to plastic and waste management, the reliance on single-use plastic in the theme parks could be reduced and plastic norms could be shifted. In demonstrating these changes in the theme parks, Disney could influence the everyday lives of its audience and the practices of other commercial entities towards more environmentally responsible outcomes. The theme parks encourage guests to imagine a brighter future. A future without single-use plastic would definitely be brighter.

The Walt Disney Company

In 1923, brothers Roy and Walt Disney started an animation company that is now known as The Walt Disney Company (Disney). While Roy had the financial acumen it is Walt that is credited with the creative genius. Mickey Mouse, for which Disney is now synonymous, first appeared in films in 1928 (Bodden 2009). Disney was an early adopter of merchandising, enhancing the promotion of the Mickey films with a range of associated merchandise (Wasko 2001a). Plastic Mickey Mouse ears became the ultimate Disney souvenir in the 1950s after they were worn on the Mickey Mouse Club television show. However, the Disney trajectory has not been smooth. Bodden (2009) describes the numerous financial difficulties that the company experienced over the years, along with staff strikes for unfair pay and movies that cost more than they made. To stay viable during World War II, Disney prepared propaganda for the American government (Clement 2018). Walt was also a founder of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation for American Ideals, which led to the formation of a blacklist of purportedly communist aligned members of Hollywood (Wasko 2001a). There are several critical biographies recounting the less desirable aspects of Walt Disney’s personality, suggesting that he was controlling and obsessive. Walt’s key skill was storytelling, which he used to sell his ideas and products.

The first Disney theme park opened in 1955 in California, followed by Walt Disney World in Florida in 1971. In purchasing the land for the parks in Florida, Disney secured support for the Reedy Creek Improvement District Act 1967, which gave it the powers of a government authority in approving its own development (Clement 2018). Despite a poor opening for Disneyland California, the US theme parks were hugely popular, partially because people were connecting with familiar characters that they had first met through Disney films and television shows (Jackson and West 2011). The first international Disney theme park opened in Japan in 1983 to immediate success. However, the Disney theme park in France, which opened in 1992 was not immediately successful due to several cultural differences.

The French guests were not as interested in the Disney merchandise nor as keen to spend money on the standard theme park food offerings (Renaut 2011). Greater glocalization changes were necessary to adjust the business model to allow it to become an economic success in the European market. In 1994, following several adjustments, including changing the park’s name from EuroDisney to Disneyland Paris, the park started to return a profit. Much was learned from the French experience as the number of Disney theme parks continued to grow. There are now six Disney resort destinations across five countries. The theme parks and resorts located in the USA and France are owned and operated by Disney. The parks in Japan are licensed to the Oriental Land Company Ltd, while Disney has partial ownership of the parks in Hong Kong and China. Globally, Disney theme parks received approximately 150 million visitors in 2019, with Magic Kingdom, Florida receiving the highest attendance of all theme parks globally (TEA/AECOM 2020). While visitation at Disneyland Paris is much lower than many of the other Disney theme parks, it still has the highest attendance of all theme parks in France. Globally, all theme parks suffered considerable reductions in attendance in 2020 due to COVID restrictions and closures but numbers are expected to start to return as restrictions ease and the parks reopen.

Figure 1: Graphic of every company Disney owns. Source:

Over the last 100 years Disney has grown from a family entity into one of the world’s largest media and entertainment companies with approximately 190,000 employees and over $60 billion in revenue in 2021 (WDC 2022a). Disney’s mission is to ‘entertain, inform, and inspire people around the globe through the power of unparalleled storytelling…’ (WDC 2022b). Storytelling and acquisition are things that the company has done very well over the years. Disney has three divisions: Parks, Experiences and Products; Media and Entertainment Distribution; and four Content Groups. The divisions excel at creating synergies to cross-promote the Disney products creating a web of interconnections between the entities, which includes approximately 200 subsidiary companies (Figure 1). Budd and Kirsch (2005) criticise Disney’s strong capitalist approach to expansion, suggesting that it is contrary to the family values it espouses, but with each acquisition Disney is reinforcing its brand. A brand that is almost universally recognised but has vastly different connotations for fans and critics. Though even some of the critics of Disney have an appreciation for Disney products (Budd and Kirsch 2005). For the Disney Global Audiences Project, Wasko et al. (2001) surveyed students across 18 countries and over 95% of respondents had seen a Disney film. Most respondents, whether they were fans or not, agreed on the core values of Disney including fun, fantasy, happiness, magic, family, and imagination (Wasko et al. 2001).

Wasko (2001a) accuses Disney of providing a homogenised depiction of race, ethnicity, sexuality, accessibility, and gender. The uniformity of Disney’s approach to the provision of products and experiences across the globe, along with its control of the narrative and the retelling of historic tales has contributed to criticism of cultural imperialism. The Disney experience is highly curated, but it has adapted to socio-political changes, incorporating greater diversity, representation, and inclusion across its products over the years. Disney products are not financially accessible for everyone. A ticket to a theme park or purchase of any of the merchandise require a sizeable investment. Across its portfolio Disney promotes consumption, and many of the products are made of, or packaged in, plastic. Disney espouses a conservation message, particularly at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but Hermanson (2005) notes that the environmental messaging does not reflect the park’s own practices. Disney promotes our ability to change the world but does not ask us to do very much about it (Hermanson 2005). The Disney business model relies on materialism and consumerism, often at odds with better environmental outcomes. Disney, like plastic, is often described as fake and ubiquitous.

Disney and plastic

Disney and plastic have had a long relationship. Without the rise of plastic alongside it in the mid to late 1900s, Disney would not be the company it is today. In 1944, when audiences were grappling with what this product called plastic was, Disney presented a cartoon in which Donald Duck constructs his own plastic plane from melted down materials (Meikle 1995). Much of the Disney theme park structures are made with fibreglass, a plastic material. Meikle (1995) notes that in 1972, a year after Magic Kingdom was opened, 2.3 tonnes of polyester resin was needed every week to maintain the rides. Plastic is also instrumental in set design and costumes, in the equipment used for filming, the computers and electrical wires used to convey images around the world, the merchandise it produces, guest passes, the packaging for food and drink, and the toiletries in its resorts.

In 1957, the all-plastic ‘Monsanto House of the Future’ opened in Disneyland California, to showcase the potential utility of an all-plastic house (Meikle 1995). Meikle (1995) explains that the ultra-contemporary design of the house also meant that it quickly went out of fashion. The house was taken down in 1968 — but not before 20 million visitors had been to see it. Monsanto, a chemical and plastics manufacturer, sponsored at least three attractions in Disneyland between 1955 and 1972, which gave Monsanto the opportunity to expose millions of people to the advances of the plastic industry (Clément 2018). Another major sponsor of Disney theme parks is The Coca-Cola Company, which has been a sponsor of the Disney theme parks since the opening of Disneyland California in 1955 and is one of the few companies that has continued this partnership throughout the years (Clément 2018). According to Clément (2018) sponsors contributed 80-90 per cent of the funds required to create attractions at the Disney theme park Epcot, which opened in 1982. Attraction investors included ExxonMobil’s Universe of Energy, General Motors/Chevrolet’s World of Motion and then Test Track, and Kraft’s (now Chiquita’s) Living with the Land (Clément 2018). In return for their sizeable investments in establishment of the park, sponsors were able to display their products, test new innovations on potential customers, and use the Disney brand to legitimise their presence. In 1984, Bass Brothers Enterprises used their oil money to invest heavily in Disney stock, ending up with almost 25% ownership and preventing a possible hostile takeover (Wasko 2001b). From that time on Disney revenues have grown, and the Disney empire has expanded and diversified.

Disney as cultural infrastructure

The theme parks are only one component of Disney’s complex and wide-reaching cultural infrastructure. As Pirvu and Goldbach (2017) note, typically cultural infrastructure refers to the ensemble of institutions offering cultural services such as libraries, museums, and theatres. These tend to be focussed on higher-end culture. But the definition of infrastructures provided by Harvey et al. (2017) provides plenty of scope to include Disney and all its assemblage parts. Infrastructures are ‘extended material assemblages that generate effects and structure social relations, either through engineered (i.e. planned and purposely crafted) or non-engineered (i.e. unplanned and emergent) activities. Seen thus, infrastructures are doubly relational due to their simultaneous internal multiplicity and their connective capacities outwards’ (Harvey et al. 2017:5).

Carse (2017) specifies that the infra in infrastructure means that it is not a structure but rather a collection of integrated parts supporting the structure. However, it is difficult to disentangle the physical structure from cultural infrastructure because of the meaning and tangibility that structures provide. Actor-network and assemblage theory demonstrate how the constituent parts contribute to the whole. Cultural icons like the Sydney Opera House and the Louvre are iconic structures that influence the experience of the art that is presented within, and they are widely recognised as representative of culture. Disney theme parks, and the castle at the centre of most of them is similar. The Disney fairy tale castle (Figure 2) has been used as the logo at the start of Disney films since 1985. The castle is tailored for each theme park and the logo is often adjusted to suit the film, but it is always recognisable as being a Disney product.

Disney theme parks provide the physical infrastructure for a defined cultural experience in five countries. Disney appeals to audiences from a range of backgrounds, in every age group, and across multiple platforms. Disney produces popular cultural icons that are shared with an audience of millions through television, film, digital, soundtracks, art, publications, merchandise, events, theme parks and travel experiences. It is a complex cultural infrastructure with few equivalents. There would be few traditional cultural institutions that would have the level of visitation or the breadth of exposure and influence as Disney.

Disney’s influence within and beyond the theme parks

The cultural effects of the theme parks extend beyond the park boundaries into ‘…areas as diverse as the uses of public space; trends of architecture, entertainment and tourism; identification of heroes; interpretation of history; and modes of celebration’ (Jackson and West 2011:1). The Disney Imagineering team has been applauded for its attention to detail and innovation, which has often been at the forefront of design and technology, and not just within the media and entertainment industry. Disney set a new standard for theme parks and for urban living. Disney developed the new urban suburb of Celebration in Florida and contributed to town planning and the approach to pedestrian friendly environments (Detweiler 2011). The design, access to open spaces, and walkability of a town are factors that Stokols (2017) suggests affect the health, and well-being of residents. The design of the theme parks also affects guests. Like in Latour’s (2005) example of a lecture theatre, the design of the space defines how it is used and how its inhabitants behave. While not explicit, there is a general understanding of appropriate behaviour on entering the park, and an expectation that you abide by the parks policy. Guests are familiar with the characters, the terminology they use, and the songs they sing in performances. In many of the Disney theme parks, guests are encouraged, and willingly take on the appearance of Disney characters or dress up in Disney merchandise (e.g., Mickey Mouse ears or shirts).

Figure 2: Sleeping Beauty Castle, Disneyland, California – December 2019. Source: Michelle Whitmore.

Bryman (1999) coined the term ‘Disneyization’ to describe how Disney theme parks provide a model of consumerism that is used in an expanding number of contexts. Disney theme parks exemplify the consumerism principles of theming, dedifferentiation of consumption, merchandising, and performative labour (Bryman 1999 and 2004). Disneyization principles have been used in the design of shopping malls, restaurants, and sports stadia (Budd and Kirsch 2005). Bryman (2004) describes control and surveillance as a supporting function of Disneyization. Control features strongly in management of the theme parks and the Disney brand more broadly. Disney has strict measures in place to control the production of its branded merchandise, whether made in-house or externally (Wasko 2001b). The guest experience at Disney theme parks is tightly controlled even before you enter the park. Tickets must be purchased, dates booked, and security screening completed before entering. The park layout, maps, signage and messaging all help to point you in the desired direction, primarily through retail spaces and on to further adventures in imaginary lands. The park is surveilled by cameras and security guards, and crowds are controlled using queuing and other techniques (Bryman 2004; King 2011).

Disney, and the media and entertainment industry in general, has a considerable influence on consumer decision-making through the power of storytelling. Former UCLA Psychology Professor Franklin Fearing (1947) suggested that films are not received passively, rather they help individuals to understand themselves, their role in society, and the values of the group. Following from Fearing’s work, the non-profit organisation, Habits of Waste’s (HOW) campaign Lights, Camera, Plastic? is aiming to remove single-use plastics from the screen and film sets to reduce the normalcy of single-use plastics in everyday life (HOW 2022). The Environmental Media Association (EMA) defines its role as providing a link between media and the environmental community to bring global issues to the forefront of pop culture (EMA 2022). EMA provides recognition for environmental messaging in media and the sustainable production of films, television, and advertising. Disney productions have been recognised by EMA for environmental messaging and set practices such as sorting waste and reducing single-use plastics (EMA 2022). In 2021, Disney was a recipient and a sponsor of the EMA Awards.

In addition to its waste diversion operations on set and on park, Disneyland Paris joined forces with the non-profit organisation, Ecovidrio, to encourage glass recycling (WDC 2022a). The partnership involved the installation of Disney, Marvel, and Pixar themed glass recycling containers across 17 cities in Spain (WDC 2022a). The decision to use Disney branding to encourage more environmentally responsible waste practices indicates the value of the Disney brand to influence consumer decision-making. The use of novelty waste receptacles in public places has been shown to increase appropriate sorting and disposal of waste items (Geller et al. 1979). Ecovidrio Miniglu glass recycling bins for the home were available for purchase at Disneyland Paris to further encourage separation and recycling (Figure 3). Glass recycling rates tend to be much higher than for plastic. Similar single source recycling bins could be used to encourage PET recycling.

Figure 3: Personal mini glass recycling bins available from Disneyland Paris. Source:

Single source recycling bins reportedly perform better, with less contamination, than mixed materials recycling (Freinkel 2011). Disney does provide recycling bins in the parks, but they are mixed, which while easier for the consumer does not bode well for what happens to the waste after it is collected. Freinkel (2011) outlines some of the complications in the use and recycling of plastic material, starting with the wide variety of materials that come under the classification of plastic. While PET plastics have the greatest potential for reuse, it is difficult to separate from other plastics and the recycled material does not have the same quality and clarity as using virgin materials. However, The Coca-Cola Company has demonstrated that it is possible to use recycled plastics for beverage containers, selling some beverages in 100% recycled containers in several countries. For the last four years The Coca-Cola Company was named as the worst contributor to plastic pollution (#breakfreefromplastic 2021). There is increasing pressure for The Coca-Cola Company to reduce its reliance on virgin plastics and to increase recycling and use of recycled materials. The Coca-Cola Company has the exclusive right to provide soft drinks and water in all the Disney parks, except in China (Anon 2020; Madison 2020). This relationship is integral in determining how and in what packaging drinks are served throughout Disney theme parks and resorts. Disney will need to work with The Coca-Cola Company to produce effective solutions to reduce the reliance on single-use plastics in its parks, and to make the most of opportunities to recycle PET.

Disney’s Corporate Social Responsibility

As a highly influential, multinational company, Disney is expected to reflect and role model social diversity and environmental responsibility. Disney’s 2021 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report opens with the Chief Executive, Bob Chapek, stating that Disney strives to ‘inspire a better world through the power of stories’, and to use those stories to make a positive difference in the world to address the critical issues facing our planet and people (WDC 2022a:4). Disney’s CSR strategy covers targets for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Community, and Environmental Sustainability, and align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In terms of waste related environmental measures, Disney has eliminated plastic straws, stirrers, and foam cups across its operations (WDC 2021), and it advises there are plans to further reduce single-use plastics (WDC 2022a). In the 2021 CSR report, Disney reported the diversion of 60% of waste from landfill and incineration at its wholly owned parks and resorts (WDC 2022a). By 2030 Disney’s goal is to have zero waste to landfill at its wholly owned and operated parks and resorts. This covers the parks in the United States and France, which will need better systems to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic to keep it out of landfill. This will probably mean a focus on food, beverage, and merchandise packaging, which may be disposed by guests while in the park. When I visited several Disney theme parks in the United States in late 2019 and early 2020, it was not possible for guests to use reusable cups to get a hot drink. This situation has not been tested in the Paris parks or more recently in the US parks, but it is one action that I suspect will need to change.

Most Disney guests are domestic visitors so it is likely that waste behaviours in the park will reflect those of the host country. Waste practices in Europe and the United States are quite different. In Europe, due in part to legislation that requires extended producer responsibility, recycling rates are higher than in the US (Freinkel 2011). In 2014 Europe reportedly recycled 30% of plastics, while in the US it was less than 10% (OECD 2018). According to Enck and Dell (2022) by 2021 plastic recycling rates in the US had dropped to closer to 5% because the plastic is no longer shipped to China for processing. The OECD (2022) announced that only 9% of plastic is recycled globally and the highest rate of recycling for any region was just 14% in the European Union countries. As Disney needs to operate across both the European and US markets, there may be learnings that can apply from the Parisian parks for use in the US. It will be interesting to see whether there are any cultural impediments to application of the same techniques across the two locations. Disney has had to transcend socio-cultural differences to successfully deliver the theme park experience in multiple countries. It now needs to shift the practices of its staff and guests to make plastic recycling and reuse standard behaviour across its parks to achieve zero waste to landfill. If Disney can successfully reduce single-use plastics and enable improved sorting and recycling or reuse, it could shift the assumed norms for plastic practices in multiple spaces.


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