When two brothers named Walt and Roy dreamt up the concept for a simple cartoon studio in the 1920s, no one could predict the scale of the Disney empire they would ultimately create. Arguably the world’s premiere producer and provider of entertainment, the Walt Disney Company (Disney) serves as a beacon of ingenuity, creativity and innovation among global corporations .
Since its inception, Disney has both protected that legacy and expanded the brand: in 1955, channeling the brothers’ initial vision, Disney launched the world’s first modern-day theme park, in which rides were integrated with stories as a “playground for the children and the families of America” . Today, the Disney Parks attract 138 million visitors annually , and all but one of the top 10 most popular theme parks in the world are run by Disney . Disney itself has been recognized as one of the World’s Most Admired Companies  and earned Fast Company’s Innovation by Design award (in 2013, for its automated theme park system, MagicBands) . So, it’s no wonder that people look to Disney not only as an entertainment provider, but also as a role model for behavior when it comes to social, economic and environmental issues.
A Whole New World
The Disney Theme Parks embody the true hallmarks of the Disney brand. First-time visitors marvel with wide-eyes and delight, in awe of the Parks’ ability to bring beloved tales, from “Peter Pan” to “Toy Story” to life. But a 138-million-person footprint inevitably causes strain on its environmental system. In 2012, waste generated by the parks and resorts totaled 314,000 tons; approximately eight billion gallons of water are consumed annually  – that’s roughly 1.6 billion bathtubs full of water.
At a local level, the state of Florida, home of Disney World, has enacted numerous policies for Florida businesses, in light of rising sea levels and shoreline erosion . Moreover, Disneyland and California Adventure in Anaheim, Calif. are confronting increased regulation related to the California drought, which has been exacerbated by climate change.
Love the World, Love the “Land”
In 2012, Jay Rasulo, then CFO of Disney, said: “Acting responsibly is core to our brand.” He offered these thoughts as Disney reported its progress against various Environmental Stewardship goals set in motion three years prior. It was in 2009 when Disney first established an official environmental stance and committed to three primary goals:
Since it enacted this eco-forward philosophy, Disney has implemented a number of steps to reduce its footprint :
- Conservation: In 2012, Disney adopted Water Conservation Plans at all parks and resorts, using more than 10 million gallons of potable water per year. The Plans cover more than 94% of water use at Disney. Early efforts seem successful, as Disney earned California’s highest environmental honor, the “Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award” in January 2015 . Additionally, Disney encourages recycling via the placement of receptacles in over 100 areas of its parks.
- Theme Park design: Disneyland visitors begin their trips on the storied entry-way train, spotting Sleeping Beauty’s castle as they zip toward Disney’s entrance gates. Today, this train runs on biodiesel made with recycled cooking oil from the Disney resort’s restaurants, furthering environmentally-conscious innovation.
- Giving back: Disney launched a $7 million investment in 2009 to protect and conserve forest ecosystems in the Amazon, U.S. and Congo . Support for these projects, including avoided deforestation, reforestation, and improved forest management, supplement Disney’s efforts to reduce fossil fuel use and promote clean energy.
More to Do?
While these measures certainly position Disney as an environmental advocate, more can be done. An early indicator came after the massive success of Disney’s “Frozen,” which grossed nearly $1.3 billion globally (the highest of any animated film ever). Admiral Robert Papp, the U.S. State Department’s special representative for the Artic, approached Disney to leverage the movie’s success to launch a dialogue with children regarding climate change, helping inform the next generation of climate change activists .
Given Disney’s ownership of major media platforms such as ABC, ESPN and of course, the Disney Channel, it can offer environmental education over its airwaves. And, as the world’s preeminent storyteller, the company is in a position to invest in content that showcases the importance of conservation, while calling for other content creators to do the same.
In addition, the Parks themselves could institute more expansive programs to aim for 100% sustainability by 2030 via enhanced use of solar panels, renewable energy, recycled material and visitor activation of its eco-friendly values. Just imagine what could be possible with the company’s full “Imagineer” community at work, innovating the first 100% sustainable “theme park of the future.” When it comes to Disney, the results could be nothing short of magic.
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