Listen to Your Critics

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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Stop just living your life FOR God, and starting living WITH him. The With God Daily Devotional is an email written by Skye Jethani that greets us first thing in the morning to turn our eyes toward God and the wonder of entering the day with him. Formatted for smartphones, each day’s devotion includes a brief reflection on Scripture, theology, or culture, and walking with God through joys and fears. Every email also links to Bible readings, and features a prayer to guide our own communion with God throughout the day. Fans of “WITH” will recognize themes, and be drawn into a new way of seeing God and our place in his world. Subscribe here.



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1 Comment

  • October 18, 2014


    Excellent advice. Of course, as you point out, accusations are often dismissed because the critic is, “not one of us”.

    One criticism I have often heard in regard to Evangelicals is how they reserve grace and mercy solely for themselves. That no matter how much the argument is dressed up in their best theological lingo coming from their most gifted writers and speakers, it still has the noisy gong of, “Grace and mercy is found only here”.

    Most Evangelicals would be shocked to know that many who are considered outsiders truly read and digest the gospels. Unfortunately, the churches have redefined the gospels, as well as the rest of the NT, as esoteric documents, understood only by those “led by the spirit”. But the truth is the gospels are read by many honest, loving hearts and minds that see no connection between the Jesus of the gospels and the evangelical church. They see a Jesus who embraced people; they see a church that embraces itself. Kirby Page, a Christian thinker of the nineteen thirties and forties wrote some excellent work on the disconnect between Jesus and the church of the twentieth century.

    I do not for a moment believe that those not connected with the church hold the unrealistic idea that the church should be totally disbanded so the members can go looking for a dinner with “tax collectors and sinners”. But what they do expect are people who walk out of their homes each morning to walk with them, not above them. And one way we can do that is to stop likening ourselves to Biblical heroes when one of our weaknesses is found out. They have heard too many of us announce our repentance with, “Well, I have a weakness like King David”; or, “You have to understand that Peter was a hot head too”. That kind of repentance has been totally worn out. What people outside the church now expect to hear is the absolute truth that says, “To be honest, I’m just like you”. That is when our daily human meetings explode with grace and mercy.