Disney World Cancels Christian Services, Flap Ensues

By Michael L. Betsch | July 7, 2008 | 8:04pm EDT

(CNSNews.com) - The late Walt Disney once cited church and prayer as inspirations for his professional success. Today, some conservatives believe Disney is "crying from his grave" because Walt Disney World in Florida has eliminated its 28-year tradition of offering on-site religious services to Christian guests.

The Orlando-based Disney resort and theme park began offering regular, weekend church services in 1975, but corporate officials claim the 35,000-acre facility can no longer accommodate 1,500 Catholic and Protestant families who want to go to those Sunday services.

Disney is now advising Christian guests to find other places of worship, some of which are miles outside of the Magic Kingdom's boundaries.

"I'm sure Walt Disney is crying from his grave when he sees what the current owners are doing to his basic belief system by saying, 'the inn is full. There's no more room for the baby Jesus,'" said Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman and founder of the Traditional Values Coalition.

In an insert accompanying a 1978 record anthology entitled the "Magical Music of Walt Disney," the famed animator and theme park founder stated that, "Whatever success I have had in bringing clean, informative entertainment to people of all ages, I attribute in part to my Congregational upbringing and lifelong habit of prayer."

Sheldon believes the Walt Disney Company's decision to suspend its Christian church services is an attempt to appease its diverse clientele, which includes homosexuals.

"I see this as a very clear, clear way of becoming more politically correct," Sheldon said. "They do not want to have to deal with the fact that they are accommodating Christianity, Catholic or Protestant, or any other group that has a strong religious faith as their basis."

Sheldon said Disney has made a high-profile attempt to accommodate the homosexual community by playing host to "Gay Day," an annual event billed by its sponsor as "America's Biggest Gay and Lesbian Vacation Experience."

However, he said, this effort is also being made at the expense of another large segment of Disney's audience.

"If Disney would reach out and accommodate both Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox and Pentecostal people who are all Christians, they would win themselves great favor in the faith community," Sheldon said. "It's worth the investment."

Wendy Wright, senior policy director for Concerned Women for America, said Disney's family-friendly attitude has been replaced by strict adherence to the business bottom line, to the point where the company is willing to alienate and offend its Christian customers.

"Disney ought to be looking at how they can promote a healthy, family-friendly moral tone that would be good for the employees and customers alike," Wright said. "Kicking churches off of the property is exactly the opposite of what Disney needs to be doing." (Disney's church services were held in a Polynesian-themed hotel, which remains in the park, although the services have been canceled.)

Wright said the late Walt Disney demanded that his employees uphold a moral standard and be sensitive toward theme park guests and their families. Echoing concerns voiced by Sheldon, she said Disney's current corporate leadership is actively reaching out to homosexual consumers that do not typically have children of their own.

"[Disney] is showing that religious families don't need to be accommodated," said Wright. "Disney's decision is very short-sighted because religious communities and activities help set a moral tone."

A spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Orlando, Fla., disagreed with Sheldon and Wright's criticism of Disney World's decision. According to spokesperson Carol Brinati, the idea to move church services off Disney premises was well received by Catholic officials.

In fact, Brinati said, the Orlando diocese was partly responsible for Disney's decision to eliminate the 28-year tradition of offering two Sunday services to Catholics staying at Disney World. She said church and Disney officials agreed that current Catholic crowds had outgrown the space allocated almost three decades ago when assemblies were much smaller.

Brinati said the decision reached by Disney should not be seen as an attempt to prevent Catholics from worshiping. She said provisions were made by the diocese to ensure that Catholics can still attend Sunday Mass.

Brinati said the Orlando diocese specifically built Mary Queen of the Universe Shrine near Disney World to minister to Disney's Catholic tourists. She added that the 2,000-seat church is readily accessible to out-of-towners by public transportation or rental car.

"We do believe that Disney's business is not providing church services, that they are in the entertainment business," Brinati said. "Our business is to proclaim the Word of God."

But Brinati angered the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights with her comments.

According to Catholic League President William Donohue, Brinati is endorsing Disney's decision to force thousands of its Christian guests to take public transportation and rent cars in order to attend Sunday service.

"The question here isn't whether Catholics should make the effort," Donohue said. "The question here is, 'Why is Disney discontinuing its service to Christians by now throwing up its arms and saying we have no more room?'"

Donahue said he is amazed that Disney World officials have no space available within their 35,000-acre facility to build permanent places of worship.

"It's not a smart public relations gambit," Donohue said. "If I were an employee of Disney, I would make every possible effort to maintain the family-friendly reputation by extending all facilities open to people of faith on Saturdays and Sundays."

He said Disney's decision to move church services off its premises, "shows not only an insensitivity, but plain stupidity."

"First of all, we are an entertainment industry," said Disney spokesperson Rena Callahan. "We, as a company, were never putting on the religious services. They were always being done by outside groups which had expressed to us that they no longer could accommodate the demand."

Callahan also said Disney officials decided it was insensitive to offer religious services solely to Christians without providing similar services to the resort's non-Christian clientele.

"There are a lot of differing viewpoints here, but to only offer two types of service when there are clearly so many religions out there and people who would want to have those experiences ... it doesn't seem right," Callahan said. "It seems like you do need to look at the diversity aspect of this and try to serve everyone to the best of your ability."

Disney World will continue to hold Christmas and Easter services at the Magic Kingdom.

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