What do the Disney and Playboy corporations have in common other than peddling fantasies, pencil-moustached founders, and rodent mascots? They seem to occupy very different worlds. One is the global leader in family entertainment. The other is the most recognized distributor of adult entertainment. But these two companies share an interesting bit of history. In fact, it’s possible that the Disney Corporation would not be what it is today without Playboy.
In the late 1960s Walt Disney covertly purchased 47 square miles of swampland in central Florida. His intent was to build an “experimental prototype community of tomorrow” or E.P.C.O.T. In a short film Walt laid out plans for an actual city with 50,000 residents, hotels, offices, factories, schools, parks, shopping centers, a sports arena, and even churches. His desire was to collect the best ideas in urban planning and technology to create a “living showcase” that could solve the problems facing the world’s cities. Behind his back the managers of the Disney Company called EPCOT “waltopia”—a slam on their founder’s utopian idealism.
Before any work had begun on the project, Walt Disney suddenly died in December 1966. The managers of his company, including CEO Card Walker, had no idea how to proceed with EPCOT, or what to do with their huge Florida property. So they retreated to what they knew best—amusement parks. In 1971 the Magic Kingdom, a larger version of California’s Disneyland, opened near Orlando. Walker and others at Disney hoped the excitement surrounding their new East Coast attraction would erase any memory of Walt’s vision for a city of the future. They were wrong.
When asked about EPCOT, Disney’s leadership dodged or deflected media inquiry by saying the new systems and technology incorporated into the Magic Kingdom were directly linked to Walt’s EPCOT vision. No one was buying it. Then Playboy entered the picture. The December 1973 issue featured an 11 page exposé of the Disney Company. The author lobbed grenade after grenade at Disney’s leaders for their lack of originality and failure to keep Walt’s imagination alive. He called them “dwarfs who inherited his sorcerer’s robes.” And he wrote that “EPCOT died about three minutes after Walt stopped breathing.”
For Disney, a company that built its brand around integrity, the article was devastating. In public the executives denied Playboy’s accusations, but behind closed doors they were shamed into admitting the article was correct. In fact, the same week the Playboy article was released, Disney’s CEO assembled a team to figure out how to do something, anything, with Walt’s EPCOT idea. Eventually EPOCT was built, but it did not resemble Walt’s city of the future. Once again Disney’s leaders retreated to a concept they could get their feeble imaginations around—a theme park. Still, if it hadn’t been for Playboy’s public takedown of Disney, it is unlikely that EPCOT, or other creative elements of the corporate DNA instilled by Walt, would have survived.
Why is this story worth remembering right now? Sometimes we must ignore the source and simply admit when a criticism is on target. Even a broken watch is right twice a day. Disney could have ignored Playboy’s article as a hyperbolic rant from a source that shared none of its values. Instead, it admitted the truth (at least internally) and acted to change direction.
There are a lot of criticisms being made against Christians, the church, and the orthodox teachings of Scripture these days. I frequently see these accusations dismissed because the source is unfair or motivated by a political/cultural agenda. That may well be true, but so might the criticism. It is a sign of wisdom, not weakness, to agree with an enemy when he is right. It is not beyond our God and his grace to use our worst critics for our greater good.
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