Gospel gone at Disney World

Twenty-eight-year tradition of weekly on-site religious services ends
Orlando Business Journal, Dec. 13, 2002
Susan Lundine,   Associate Managing Editor

LAKE BUENA VISTA — After making weekly religious services available to guests on its property for 28 years, Walt Disney World has decided to cut back to twice a year — Christmas and Easter.

The move has the blessing of the Catholic Diocese of Orlando. But it also has raised the ire of conservative religious leaders.

“It appears Walt Disney World has further distanced itself from a great religious tradition — attending church and giving honor and glory to our God,” says Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based Christian lobbying organization that represents more than 43,000 churches.

Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based nonprofit Christian pro-family organization, is equally offended, says spokeswoman Julie Neils.

“The largest provider of family entertainment proves once again how out of touch it is with what is important to American families,” she says.

Continues Neils, “We hope that families will consider Disney’s policies when they make vacation plans this year.”

But Abe Pizam, dean of the University of Central Florida’s Rosen School of Hospitality, doubts the change will affect anyone’s desire to go to Disney.

“People may decide to go elsewhere for worship services, but I don’t think that’s an inconvenience,” he says. “And I don’t think churches will start a holy war with Disney over this.”

More worshipers, fewer priests

Beginning in 1975, Disney began offering religious services at the Polynesian Luau area, attracting up to 1,600 people each week and up to 4,500 on Christmas.

Two Catholic masses were provided by the nearby Mary Queen of the Universe Shrine. One Protestant church service was provided by the Christian Service Center for Central Florida Inc.

In those early years, there weren’t any nearby churches, says Disney spokeswoman Rena Callahan.

But now, says Callahan, there are multiple churches in the area — and 18 Disney resorts.

“As we expanded the number of hotel rooms, it became difficult to provide a single space for all the guests who wanted to worship,” she says.

“It’s not a question of it being the right thing to do,” says Callahan. “We’re not saying we don’t care about this. It isn’t a question of morality. It’s a question of being able to accommodate the demand.”

At the same time, Mary Queen of the Universe Shrine has run into problems of its own, says Father Joseph Harte, director of the Catholic shrine, which was built to serve the spiritual needs of tourists.

“There is a great shortage of priests in the church,” he says.

Until this year, the Salesians religious order in Tampa was providing Catholic priests to do the masses on Disney property, says Harte. But when they couldn’t do that any longer, “We had to arrange to take the masses ourselves.”

Harte decided it would be better to consolidate the two Disney masses into one, because “it’s impossible to have one priest in two places at the same time.” But Disney said it didn’t have room for one mass for 1,500 people, he says. “So we dropped the masses entirely.”

Other options

Says Disney’s Callahan, “We felt we couldn’t accommodate it and felt the need to offer more than one type of opportunity to worship. There are so many faiths, that it would be wrong to have just a Protestant service available.”

Having a weekly nondenominational service on Disney property was proposed as an alternative, she says, “but we believed we would have had the same challenge” with accommodating the number of people wishing to worship.

Pizam defends Disney’s argument, saying that it would be unfair to offer worship services that didn’t have room for all who wanted to attend.

“Who do you turn away?” he asks. “Sometimes you’re better off not offering it at all, than turning people away.”

The Disney decision also has the support of the Catholic Diocese of Orlando. Spokeswoman Carol Brinati expresses gratitude for the space in the past, adding, “We believe it is truly the responsibility of the individual to seek out a church for services. Disney’s business is in theme parks, and our business is ministering to people through God.”

Now Disney provides guests with a list of local churches they can attend on their own. The Christmas and Easter services will continue to be held at Disney’s Contemporary Resort.

Says Callahan, “The feedback we’ve heard so far is this is working.”

Political correctness

However, conservative religious leaders and some pro-family organizations already at odds with Disney over such things as Gay Days — an annual, non-Disney sponsored trip to the local theme park by gays and lesbians — have a different take on the decision.

“Disney has made significant efforts to accommodate the gay community, but obviously does not consider families who hold religious convictions to be worth their effort,” says Neils.

Adds Sheldon, “I’m sure this decision is not based upon finance, but is based upon political correctness and their fear of a few radical people.”

The Christian Service Center, which stands to lose $15,000 a year in contributions Disney guests had made at the worship services, takes a gentler view.

“We were disappointed, but we will carry on,” says Robert Stuart, executive director of the center.

The $15,000 “won’t make or break us, but it helped,” he says. “The bigger thing I’m concerned about is the lack of opportunity for spiritual experience on Disney property.

“We love Disney and hope they’ll change their mind,” says Stuart.

Pizam, though, backs the theme park’s decision. After all, he says, “People pay fees to enter the theme parks, not to go to worship service.”

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