So which is right? And what effect do the competing ideas have on this bubbly brand? As in many cases, the truth is probably a mixture of the two. While Disney's association with the anti-Communist movement is well-documented (he was supposedly an informant for the FBI), it's clear that he was also intent on producing family films that could transport viewers to a place where they could forget about their troubles.
The same holds true for Disneyland, the massive project that Disney undertook in 1952, which has grown to become one of the most successful theme parks in the world. While the park's policies did fall in line with its creator's attitudes - long-haired men were barred from entering during the 1960s, for example - there's a carefree air to the place that the company continues to carefully cultivate even 36 years after Disney's death.
But it is hard to imagine that some of the company's current policies would have been endorsed by Disney (who actually owned a minority share of the company's public stock at the time of his death and thus wasn't as influential as some may have imagined). For example, Disney was known to have homophobic attitudes, which probably would have clashed with the company's current domestic partner benefits – an innovative approach by one of the first major brands in the world to recognize homosexual and non-traditional living arrangements. And who knows how Disney would have felt about the position of Michael Eisner at the company, given his touches of anti-Semitism.
The Disney brand, however, remains largely unscathed by these controversies, probably because the company simply doesn't deal with them. In an age where money will buy you enough advertising, marketing, and PR power to create any image you desire, The Walt Disney Company has built an efficient machine that keeps its "Happiest Place on Earth" motto front and center.
Its attorneys are litigious to the point that some Disney fan sites have had their plugs pulled because of unauthorized use of images, and its control of many major media outlets - including the ABC television network; an 80 percent ownership of the all-sports networks ESPN and ESPN2; a plethora of radio stations, including its own Radio Disney network; the cable channels the Disney Channel and Toon Disney; international TV networks that cover most of the globe; several magazines and book publishing imprints; five music labels; an in-house computer software division; a group of websites; and full ownership of the National Hockey League team the Mighty Ducks (named after one of their films) as well as a 25 percent stake in the Anaheim Angels, a Major League Baseball team and 2002 World Series champions - ensures that they can control what consumers see and hear to a large degree. So although you might find dissenting opinions at many alternative websites, you won't see much controversy on the mainstream ones.
Of course, in some respects the company doesn't have to work too hard to maintain its image simply because most people have selective memories that focus on the positive and discard the negative. And with Disney there are a lot of positive memories to focus on. An entire generation grew up with The Mickey Mouse Club TV show and fond memories of family trips to Disneyland, where parents remarked on how neat and clean the park was and how courteous the employees were (this is still true today; to those who are critical of the company, Disney's demands on its employees are often characterized as fascist in approach). Add in an animation renaissance that started with the 1989 movie The Little Mermaid, and one can see how many of the sinister comments come across as basic muckraking to the masses.
Like any brand, though, the Walt Disney Company has to fend off constant competition to remain at the top of the heap. That animation renaissance, for example, has faltered in recent years and has allowed Dreamworks and 20th Century Fox to steal some thunder with the computer-animated hits Shrek and Ice Age, respectively. Disney's deal with Pixar to distribute the wildly successful Toy Story and Monsters Inc. films, among others, has helped pick up the slack, but Pixar CEO Steve Jobs recently hinted that the company would like to forge ahead on its own as soon as its current deal ends.
As far as Disney theme parks are concerned, Disneyland in California and its bigger Floridian cousin, Walt Disney World, have thrived. However, the company hit a snag in Paris, where the French version, Euro Disney, has struggled. Critics cite the dreary European weather, which clashes with open-air rides, and the lack of available alcohol as instances where the brand failed to consider its region and culture. But the Tokyo park, called DisneySea, has done better and this month Disney broke ground in Hong Kong. The new park is being hailed as a study in "cultural sensitivity," after lessons learned with Euro Disney. The park will be trilingual (English, Cantonese and Mandarin), built to accommodate Hong Kong's rainy but warm weather, serve local cuisine in addition to its all-American fare, and celebrate local holidays.
While the brand has come a long way from Disney's early struggle to turn a simple mouse into a star, it's hard to deny that it still captures people's imaginations and hearts with its appeal to the kid in everyone. Disney himself supposedly once said: "I hope that we don't lose sight of one thing - that it was all started by a mouse."
In the end, perhaps it's that simplicity that keeps this brand going.