Several weeks ago, before the Walt Disney Company became entangled in a battle over anti-L.G.B.T.Q. legislation in Florida — one that continued on Tuesday with walkouts by Disney employees — longtime theme park executives worried there could be trouble ahead.
More than 150 companies, including Marriott and American Airlines, had signed a Human Rights Campaign letter opposing the legislation, which restricts classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity and has been labeled by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Disney, with roughly 80,000 theme park workers in Florida and a long history of supporting the L.G.B.T.Q. community, was not among them. Leaders at the Disney Parks, Experiences and Products division urged action: Disney’s name should be on the list.
They were rebuffed, according to three people briefed on the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comply with company strictures about speaking to reporters. Disney’s newly hired corporate affairs chief, Geoff Morrell, and Disney legislative affairs executives — guided by the general desire of Bob Chapek, the chief executive, to avoid publicly weighing in on state political battles — decided that continuing to work behind the scenes had a better chance of a payoff. For weeks, Disney lobbyists in Florida had been pressing to soften the legislation.
At least in this instance, staying quiet backfired, resulting in a cascade of events that has amounted to one of the biggest squalls for Disney in decades. It has also become a high-profile example of a stark shift in corporate culture: A socially conscious generation of workers are demanding that their employers speak out on contentious social and political issues.
Faced with an employee uprising about the company’s decision to stay quiet, Mr. Chapek shifted course and publicly disavowed the Florida legislation on March 9, the day of Disney’s annual shareholder meeting. On March 10, Gov. Ron DeSantis punched back, mocking the company as “Woke Disney.” On March 11, with some employees still angry and questions mounting about his leadership, Mr. Chapek bluntly apologized to Disney’s 200,000 workers in an email.
Last week, still-unsatisfied Disney employees began organizing protests with a website, WhereIsChapek.com. On Friday, Walt Disney Studios let it be known that a same-sex kiss that had been cut from Pixar’s upcoming “Lightyear” had been restored. Over the weekend, announcers at Disney-owned ESPN protested the legislation with on-air silence during the N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament.
And now Disney — a company that cultivates perfection as part of its brand — finds itself in the third week of a mess.
On Tuesday, the WhereIsChapek employee protests culminated with various actions. None were particularly boisterous, although they succeeded in commanding the news media’s attention. On Tuesday morning, a CNBC crew reported live from the front gates of Disney’s corporate headquarters in Burbank, Calif.
Some Disney artists posted support on Twitter, where the hashtag #DisneySayGay was prominent midmorning. Sixty to 70 Disney employees briefly walked in a loop around Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Down the street at the Bette Davis Picnic Area, a smattering of Disney employees gathered in protest, although they seemed outnumbered, at least at one point, by members of the news media.
In a statement about the walkouts on Tuesday, the company said, “We respect our colleagues’ right to express their views, and we pledge our ongoing support of the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community in the fight for equal rights.”
It was impossible to gauge the ultimate level of participation; most Disney employees are still working at home. Some participation was virtual, one organizer said, with employees leaving an “away” message on Slack or other internal messaging systems to express solidarity.
The creators of the WhereIsChapek site said they were members of Disney’s L.G.B.T.Q. “community and their allies.” The site listed demands, including indefinitely ceasing — not pausing and re-evaluating, as Mr. Chapek has promised — political donations to Florida lawmakers who were involved in the passage of the bill. The New York Times verified that the anonymous organizers were Disney employees.
To get ahead of the walkout, Disney held an all-company virtual town hall on Monday that was dedicated to L.G.B.T.Q. issues. (A town hall had long been planned for Tuesday, albeit on a different diversity, equity and inclusion topic.) The roughly 100-minute session featured a panel discussion with eight Disney employees who spoke about their own L.G.B.T.Q. experience and why the company’s initial silence on the bill was hurtful. Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, a civil rights advocacy group, participated in a separate discussion.
Mr. Chapek spoke briefly on camera, according to several people who attended the meeting.
“I understand where we have made mistakes — and the pain those mistakes caused,” he said. “I know that our silence wasn’t just about the bill in Florida, but about every time an individual or institution that should have stood up for this community didn’t. I and the leadership team are determined to use this moment as a catalyst for more meaningful and lasting change.”
As part of the town hall, Disney announced that Mr. Chapek had postponed a management retreat planned for next week in Orlando, Fla. He and senior executives would instead use that time to go on a listening tour at Disney workplaces, both domestically and overseas.
Disney also unveiled a task force to develop an action plan for Disney to be a more positive force for the L.G.B.T.Q. community, including through its content for families. In addition, Disney said it had signed on to the Human Rights Campaign’s condemnation of anti-transgender government actions in Texas.
To understand the furor inside Disney about its handling of the legislation in Florida, it helps to know Disney’s history.
In the 1990s, Disney was one of the first major corporations to offer health coverage to the live-in partners of gay and lesbian employees. That decision, paired with tolerance of an unofficial “gay day” celebration at Walt Disney World in Florida, prompted a noisy boycott from Southern Baptists. Disney stood firm. (Church members officially ended their boycott in 2005.)
In the current situation, Disney not only tried to stay quiet, it had given money to Florida politicians supporting the legislation, raising alarm, particularly among longtime L.G.B.T.Q. employees: Was Disney fading as an ally?
There has also been simmering resentment inside Disney over L.G.B.T.Q. representation in Disney-branded content. It did not start with Mr. Chapek’s tenure. Disney has long tried to keep such characters and relationships to a minimum. It had been decided that Pixar’s “Lightyear,” for instance, could have a lesbian couple at its center. But a G-rated kiss was perhaps a step too far.
These factors and others — the prolonged isolation of Disney employees during the pandemic, perhaps — added to an already combustible situation.
Remy Tumin contributed reporting.