As you’ve probably heard, the Disney community is all atwitter at the announced return of a long-absent park character. Disney has decided to bring the Orange Bird back to the parks, and everyone seems thrilled. Well, everyone but me, that is.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as nostalgic as the next person about that cute little guy. And I have great memories of his time in the Magic Kingdom, right down to the little sipper cups shaped like whatever fruit juice they contained that were sold at the Sunshine Tree Terrace. But to understand my ambivalence about this sweet, sunny fellow, we’ll need to take a look at his history.
Disney likes sponsors – big surprise, I know. And our story begins with a Disney corporate sponsor.
In 1969, the Florida Citrus Commission was among the first organizations to sign on as a sponsor of a Walt Disney World attraction: the Sunshine Pavilion, which included the Tropical Serenade (known today as Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room) and the Sunshine Tree Terrace. It was decided that a mascot was called for, so Don MacLaughlin, publicity art designer for the Disney Studio, developed a character that would be known as the Orange Bird. A unique little chap, the character was an orange bird with leaves for wings. Unlike most birds, he couldn’t talk or sing; he only thought in the form of orange puffs of smoke that would appear above his head. To explain the Orange Bird’s tale, the famous Disney songwriting team of Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman composed an entire story album celebrating the new character. And who sang this sweet little song about an innocent bird? The spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission, Anita Bryant.
And therein, ladies and gentlemen, lies the grudge I hold against the Orange Bird.
“Who is Anita Bryant?” you ask. I’ll refrain from commenting that you really need to get out more (just kidding) and instead give you a short look at this charming woman’s history. After a brief radio career and a trip to the Miss America pageant, Ms. Bryant decided to get involved in political matters. In 1977, Dade County, Florida passed an ordinance sponsored by Bryant's former good friend Ruth Shack that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Offended at the thought of discrimination being made illegal, Bryant led a highly publicized campaign to repeal the ordinance as the leader of a coalition named Save Our Children. The campaign was based on conservative Christian beliefs regarding the sinfulness of homosexuality and the perceived threat of homosexual recruitment of children and child molestation (never mind that the overwhelming majority of child molesters are white male heterosexuals). Bryant stated:
"What these people really want, hidden behind obscure legal phrases, is the legal right to propose to our children that theirs is an acceptable alternate way of life. [...] I will lead such a crusade to stop it as this country has not seen before."
And another lovely quote of hers:
"As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children."
And let’s not forget:
"If gays are granted rights, next we'll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards and to nail biters."
Oh, and her “Save Our Children” campaign? By focusing on the idea that gays and lesbians were somehow threatening to children, Bryant had created an incredibly powerful rhetorical focus for social conservatives. In 1981, Jerry Falwell echoed her language in a fundraising letter that reminded his followers, "Please remember, homosexuals don't reproduce! They recruit! And they are out after my children and your children." (By the way, I'd love to hear them explain exactly how this "recruiting" occurs. That one just cracks me up.) By the beginning of the 1980s, the Religious Right had made the fight against the gay and lesbian community one of its primary issues, and found it a particularly effective focus for fundraising appeals. The efforts of conservatives slowed the advance of gay rights and established an organized anti-gay opposition. And Anita Bryant was the one who got this ball of hatred and bigotry rolling.
So when I see the Orange Bird, I immediately hear his song in my head. And who is singing it? Anita Bryant. Believe me when I say, that is not a voice I want to hear. To quote a fabulous quip I once read, “Anita Bryant like anita hole in the head.” I realize it’s not the Orange Bird’s fault. But Disney knows of his past affiliations with this bigot. So if Disney wants to bring him back, I think they should make efforts to distance him from his checkered past. One way to do so might be by having the song re-recorded, and by an artist known to support equal rights for everyone. Better yet, Disney could donate the proceeds from that song release to support marriage equality. That would go a long way to rehabilitating the Orange Bird’s image, and I think all lovers of fairness and equality could then embrace him without guilt. What do you think?