The Happiest (& Warmest) Place on Earth: Disney Waves Its Wand at Climate Change
Arguably the world’s premiere producer and provider of entertainment, the Walt Disney Company (Disney) serves as a beacon of ingenuity, creativity and innovation among global corporations. Can the magic go green?
When two brothers named Walt and Roy dreamt up the concept for a simple cartoon studio in the 1920s, no one could predict the scale of the Disney empire they would ultimately create. Arguably the world’s premiere producer and provider of entertainment, the Walt Disney Company (Disney) serves as a beacon of ingenuity, creativity and innovation among global corporations .
Since its inception, Disney has both protected that legacy and expanded the brand: in 1955, channeling the brothers’ initial vision, Disney launched the world’s first modern-day theme park, in which rides were integrated with stories as a “playground for the children and the families of America” . Today, the Disney Parks attract 138 million visitors annually , and all but one of the top 10 most popular theme parks in the world are run by Disney . Disney itself has been recognized as one of the World’s Most Admired Companies  and earned Fast Company’s Innovation by Design award (in 2013, for its automated theme park system, MagicBands) . So, it’s no wonder that people look to Disney not only as an entertainment provider, but also as a role model for behavior when it comes to social, economic and environmental issues.
A Whole New World
The Disney Theme Parks embody the true hallmarks of the Disney brand. First-time visitors marvel with wide-eyes and delight, in awe of the Parks’ ability to bring beloved tales, from “Peter Pan” to “Toy Story” to life. But a 138-million-person footprint inevitably causes strain on its environmental system. In 2012, waste generated by the parks and resorts totaled 314,000 tons; approximately eight billion gallons of water are consumed annually  – that’s roughly 1.6 billion bathtubs full of water.
At a local level, the state of Florida, home of Disney World, has enacted numerous policies for Florida businesses, in light of rising sea levels and shoreline erosion . Moreover, Disneyland and California Adventure in Anaheim, Calif. are confronting increased regulation related to the California drought, which has been exacerbated by climate change.
Love the World, Love the “Land”
In 2012, Jay Rasulo, then CFO of Disney, said: “Acting responsibly is core to our brand.” He offered these thoughts as Disney reported its progress against various Environmental Stewardship goals set in motion three years prior. It was in 2009 when Disney first established an official environmental stance and committed to three primary goals:
Since it enacted this eco-forward philosophy, Disney has implemented a number of steps to reduce its footprint :
- Conservation: In 2012, Disney adopted Water Conservation Plans at all parks and resorts, using more than 10 million gallons of potable water per year. The Plans cover more than 94% of water use at Disney. Early efforts seem successful, as Disney earned California’s highest environmental honor, the “Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award” in January 2015 . Additionally, Disney encourages recycling via the placement of receptacles in over 100 areas of its parks.
- Theme Park design: Disneyland visitors begin their trips on the storied entry-way train, spotting Sleeping Beauty’s castle as they zip toward Disney’s entrance gates. Today, this train runs on biodiesel made with recycled cooking oil from the Disney resort’s restaurants, furthering environmentally-conscious innovation.
- Giving back: Disney launched a $7 million investment in 2009 to protect and conserve forest ecosystems in the Amazon, U.S. and Congo . Support for these projects, including avoided deforestation, reforestation, and improved forest management, supplement Disney’s efforts to reduce fossil fuel use and promote clean energy.
More to Do?
While these measures certainly position Disney as an environmental advocate, more can be done. An early indicator came after the massive success of Disney’s “Frozen,” which grossed nearly $1.3 billion globally (the highest of any animated film ever). Admiral Robert Papp, the U.S. State Department’s special representative for the Artic, approached Disney to leverage the movie’s success to launch a dialogue with children regarding climate change, helping inform the next generation of climate change activists .
Given Disney’s ownership of major media platforms such as ABC, ESPN and of course, the Disney Channel, it can offer environmental education over its airwaves. And, as the world’s preeminent storyteller, the company is in a position to invest in content that showcases the importance of conservation, while calling for other content creators to do the same.
In addition, the Parks themselves could institute more expansive programs to aim for 100% sustainability by 2030 via enhanced use of solar panels, renewable energy, recycled material and visitor activation of its eco-friendly values. Just imagine what could be possible with the company’s full “Imagineer” community at work, innovating the first 100% sustainable “theme park of the future.” When it comes to Disney, the results could be nothing short of magic.
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Student comments on The Happiest (& Warmest) Place on Earth: Disney Waves Its Wand at Climate Change
Interesting article, Amrita! I agree, I think given the platform that Disney has, and the impact they’re having on our planet, they can definitely do more! While I think partnering with foundations that support their mission is a start, I wonder if they could also include it in their movies. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen the movie Ferngully (it’s a cartoon movie about a logger who gets shrunk to the size of a fairy in the Australian rain forest and he has to work with the other fairies and things in the forest to protect their home from other loggers and pollution) but it’s 100% a PSA on climate change and I watched it as a child having no idea that not only was I being entertained, but I was also being educated about the impact of climate change and the impact that humans are having on our rain forest! I also think that Avatar did a good job of showing the dangers of entering other people’s (or animal’s) home and exploiting it to get what we (the corporations want). I think these types of “advertisements” on the dangers climate change are a step in the right direction and something that Disney can also adapt.
I wholeheartedly agree with HBS2018 that Disney has the opportunity to play a powerful and enduring role in shaping kids’ perception towards societal issues. We saw it with Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, a well-known children’s story of a character that stands up for nature in the face of deforestation and industrialization. Indeed, the story became so powerful in its allegory that parents in logging communities have even attempted to ban the book from school libraries and classroom reading lists. The fact that such a seemingly benign tale can evoke so much push-back leads to two conclusions: (1) stories can, in fact, be enduring (after all, why else would parents get so worked up about schools using The Lorax as a teaching tool?); (2) prolific platforms such as Disney can be tremendously influential given its ability to penetrate through intermediaries and reach children directly through the computer, television, or movie screen, circumventing the classroom. The Disney theme parks are particularly important since they go further than just digital media: at Disney theme parks kids have an opportunity to experience an alternate reality up close. What if Disney produced a kid-friendly distopian story and then had kids come to its theme parks to experience what a post-climate change world would look like?
 Foss, A. (2014). “An Investigation into the Impact of Children’s Literature Through a Review of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax.” Earth Common Journal, 4(1). Retrieved from http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=956
Thank you for a very interesting post Amrita!
It lead me to read up on Disney’s efforts regarding these issues and I was impressed to see that in some aspects Disney is at the forefront of turning food waste into energy. I think that as such a powerhouse in the industry, Disney has the power to influence additional companies – whether suppliers or partners. It will be interesting to analyze how their policies are driving change in their business ecosystem.
Finally, I think you touch on another very important role that Disney plays – an educator to the young. Many of our opinions are formed at a young age and influence by popular culture. In recent years, Disney has taken a stance on issues such as the portrayal of women in Disney movies. I agree with you that climate change and global warming are issues that Disney can take a social stance on through it influence on young viewers.
Amrita, this post is particularly fascinating to me given my experience working for the company.
In addition to the potable water, lowering emissions, and waste reduction initiatives, Disney has also employed technology to increase sustainability. For instance, the introduction of My Magic Plus bands in Florida has replaced tickets altogether. Now, Disney visitors can have a commemorative, re-usable wrist-band to wear. Whether it’s booking rides in advance, accessing your hotel, or entering the park, My Magic Plus allows to have a one stop shop that’s functional and eco-friendly. However, theme parks can be an environmentally costly business. For instance, Disney is one of the largest consumers of fireworks, which release carbon and pollutants in the air. Disney has massive firework shows every single night at every park, spending (to the best of my knowledge) upwards of $50M+ on fireworks annually.
Amrita – Thanks so much for this fascinating post! Its so heartening to see that Disney is leveraging its brand equity to disseminate this powerful message. Using its various platforms to educate the new generation about climate change and its impact is one of the most valuable contributions that Disney can make.
Its also interesting to see the unusual places where sustainability measures can be undertaken and see a huge impact. Six Flags implemented a similar go-green strategy across its theme park locations. Initiatives included replacing all its plastic trash bags with biodegradable ones and using exclusively LED lighting to conserve energy. Washuzen Highland Park in Japan went a step further and actually built a foot-pedal powered roller coaster. Creative solutions like these just show how despite changing times the magic can be still be kept alive!
Amrita – great post about one of my favorite companies.
I had no idea that Disney had approached Admiral Papp, USCG (ret.), and the Arctic Council to capitalize on the popularity of “Frozen” in order to educate and inspire a new generation of climate change activists. The partnership makes sense – as far back as World War II, the US government has had a long tradition of working with Walt Disney Productions to produce short films and cartoons to support everything from the war effort to financial responsibility . Releases have ranged from navigational training aids for the Navy to reels promoting the benefits of paying income taxes to everyday Americans. However, there is a darker side to the relationship: Disney infamously produced anti-German and anti-Japanese propaganda that, although I’d argue that it fulfilled a necessary purpose at the time, would be wholly unacceptable by today’s standards.
After following up, I was disappointed to find out that Disney decided against producing “Frozen”-themed PSAs to inform younger audiences about the risks of climate change. Papp was apparently told: “Admiral, you might not understand, here at Disney it’s in our culture to tell stories that project optimism and have happy endings” . Though I understand why Disney might be a little gun-shy about collaborating with the government after its experiences during WWII, the initiatives underway in their parks indicate that they’re sensitive to the changing climate. With that in mind, do you think large companies like Disney still believe in the notion of civic duty? Or do you think their sustainability programs are more internally-focused on issues like corporate image and cost-cutting? Personally, I think the crossover makes sense and it’s much easier to reach the “happy ending” when people both informed AND entertained.
It’s great to hear that Disney made such a big push in 2012 to try and lead the way in becoming more green by 2020. My favorite part of your blog was the note about how they were approached to leverage the success of Frozen to start a conversation with fans (i.e., children) about climate change — did they do it?! I’d love to see the, do even more. As you mention, they are probably in the best position of any company on Earth to influence the youngest generation. Put your money where your moth is, Mickey Mouse!