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Why are protesters waving swastika flags in front of Disney World?

As Disney has become a more prominent target of the far right, neo-Nazis have arrived at its gates

This weekend, videos showing more than a dozen protesters waving flags emblazoned with swastikas at the entrance to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, went viral. 

It’s not the first time Disney World has drawn the attention of the far right. In May 2022, a viral TikTok video showed protesters brandishing flags with Nazi symbols at the same location. 

“Flaunting hate symbols to children and families reflects the same cruelty and lack of regard for human dignity that has characterized the Nazi movement since its beginning,” the Florida Holocaust Museum said in a statement to the Forward

So: Why would neo-Nazis target a target as apparently innocuous as Disney?

The entertainment giant has become an increasing focus of the far right since 2021, after leaked documents revealed that Walt Disney World employees received anti-racism training. The same year, Disney announced “Reimagine Tomorrow,” an initiative to promote inclusivity. As part of that campaign, Disney pledged to have half of its scripted characters come from underrepresented groups by 2024. 

Changes in the media company’s films drew widespread attention. Shortly after it announced “Reimagine Tomorrow,” Disney said that it would modify its planned live remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to “avoid reinforcing stereotypes” about dwarfism. 

A year later, Disney’s Lightyear and Strange World featured, respectively, the first same-sex kiss and lead gay character in Disney productions.

At Disney World, the company decided to limit the use of its famous “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” greeting over concerns that it was too gendered. Some conservatives, in response, branded the company with the nickname “Woke Disney,” arguing that the company was being guided by a liberal agenda.

At the same time, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, made culture wars an increasing focus of his political platform. DeSantis — who previously declared that his home state is “where woke goes to die” — has recently staged a series of attacks on what he has described as  “woke indoctrination.”  He’s specifically cited his clashes with Disney as evidence of his commitment to fight against the “woke mind virus.”

DeSantis’ stance has made it difficult for Disney to stay clear of partisan politics, as has historically been the company’s preference. Things reached a boiling point in 2022, when Disney CEO Bob Chapek spoke out after DeSantis signed a bill that forbade classroom education about diverse sexual orientations in elementary schools. 

The law — nicknamed “Don’t Say Gay” — was widely criticized as perpetuating homophobia; pressed by protesting employees, Chapek expressed Disney’s “disappointment and concern” with the law to the governor.

“DeSantis and his followers have been attacking Disney ever since they defended LGBTQ+ kids,” said Florida Rep. Anna V. Eskamani in a statement to the Forward. 

Earlier this year, DeSantis sought to abolish Disney’s special tax district status, and the Florida legislature eventually stripped Disney’s control over the district’s oversight board. DeSantis later annulled two agreements passed by the previous, Disney-led board that granted the corporation control over construction in its special district. 

Disney sued DeSantis in response, alleging that the Florida government was engaged in “a targeted campaign of government retaliation.” Last month, Disney also withdrew its plan to construct a $1 billion office complex in Orlando. 

It’s not clear what, exactly, spurred the most recent display of Nazi symbols in front of Disney World. But as the latest incident in the ongoing escalation between Disney and the far right, it sparked concern, for some, about whether and how authorities might react to the public display of hate symbols — especially given DeSantis’ record of declining to condemn neo-Nazi rallies. 

“It’s absolutely disgusting to see what has become a common presence of Nazis in Florida,” said Eskamani. “Every person, regardless of political ideology, should condemn this.”

Reacting to calls on DeSantis to condemn the protesters, Florida’s Republican Party Chairman Christian Ziegler tweeted, “My grandmother who raised me was taken by the Nazis and forced to work in a labor camp … As long as I am Chairman, this can serve as our Republican party’s denouncement of Nazis, whether real or phony.” 

“No matter how small or large the amount of people supporting antisemitism, we need to call it out,” said David Weissman, a Florida resident whose post on Twitter about the weekend protest helped make videos of the Nazi flags go viral. “I believe they chose Disney as a target because Disney stood up to fascism, and bigotry from Ron DeSantis.”

Walt Disney World did not respond to the Forward’s request for a comment.

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