Childhood Obesity — How Bad Did Disney Blow It?

Epcot

Epcot Center in Florida, part of the Disney kingdom’s Eastern branch, made news with the debut of a new feature, which turned out to be more of a beta test, and not a very successful one. For the Orlando Sentinal, Marni Jameson reported on the hopeful beginning:

Taking aim at childhood obesity, Epcot unveiled its latest attraction this month — Habit Heroes. Housed inside Innoventions, the park’s futuristic showcase of ideas, Habit Heroes targets teens and their families.

Given the context, the word “target” and the phrase “taking aim” are a bit nervous-making. Is this the reporter’s take on it, or does Disney describe its efforts in such a way? It may be hard to know, for a reason which will soon be clear.

The interactive exhibit only caters to 12 players at a time. The participants do battle with animated cartoon representations of the various bad habits, such as Sweet Tooth, Snacker, and Control Freak. The characters are in the great tradition of comic book baddies, or the even more venerable tradition of European religious art in the Middle Ages, where images portraying the Seven Deadly Sins could be found everywhere.

So, the challenge is to fight bad habits, and get a picture taken, and then there’s a rave, where each kid dances in her or his own spotlight. (How much fun can that be, with only a dozen kids?) Jameson adds:

Those who want to continue the fight back home can use their photo to create an avatar at habitheroes.com, where they can confront 25 more bad habits.

Negative reaction to the attraction was swift and severe, as The Huffington Post writer Emma Gray reported, saying:

… [W]hile the Habit Heroes campaign claims to encourage healthy activities, not everyone is convinced that its methods (and messages) are positive. The project is beginning to stir up controversy, not unlike the anti-obesity ads in Georgia that have sparked a national debate over fat-shaming.

The Web page offers a slide show where many of the habit villains are introduced, and the viewer can judge whether these characters are useful, or whether the whole concept actually vilifies children and teens who suffer from obesity. The page includes a powerful quotation from Ragen Chastain, an activist who also speaks out against the infamous Georgia anti-obesity billboards:

Disney is supposed to be the happiest place on Earth and now fat kids — who are subjected to a barrage of shaming, humiliating, stigmatizing, and bullying messages from society on a daily basis — will go on vacation and find out that people who look like them are villains who other kids fight for points and bragging rights.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, founder of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa, Canada (which is described as a “multi-disciplinary, ethical, evidence-based nutrition and weight management centre”), is no fan of Habit Heroes. He hastened to describe the exhibit as “horrifying,” and wrote:

So thanks for being so helpful Disney — I mean if your kid’s not overweight or obese, here’s to Disney reinforcing society’s most hateful negative obesity stereotyping, and if they are overweight or obese — what kid doesn’t want to be made to feel like a personal failure while on a Disney family vacation?

But wait, there’s more! The Huffington Post updated its facts on February 26, reporting that Habit Heroes was closed indefinitely for maintenance, and the website was down, and sources insisted that it was because of the bad reaction. Why would a corporation be such a wuss? Usually, big business just goes right ahead and does what it wants to, regardless of complaints.

And look at some of the ideological black marks against Disney already — with exhibits sponsored by Monsanto and glorifying the Chinese takeover of Tibet, and all kinds of other questionable practices, why should Disney back off from doing this controversial thing? (Incidentally, the corporate sponsors of Habit Heroes are Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and their stated purpose is to bring about lower healthcare costs.)

Two days later, The Huffington Post related that the theme park had answered its journalistic inquiries with these words:

We are currently in a soft opening period for Habit Heroes, which gives us a chance to collect guest feedback and test and adjust the attraction prior to its opening. In order to work on further improving and refining the experience, we’ve decided to close the attraction for the time being. We look forward to officially opening it soon.

So, Disney figured it had put its foot in its mouth, and immediately backpedaled, releasing the story that it had only been a tryout. Dr. Freedhoff also updated his blog entry on the subject, noting that “Disney did the right thing.”

Did they? If they had stuck to the original concept, why would that be so bad? Critics of the critics say, “Hey, it’s voluntary. Nobody has to buy a ticket, nobody has to go in there.” And, of course, some shake their heads, baffled at how the overprotective nanny types can so readily get their knickers in a twist.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Epcot exhibit joins fight against childhood obesity,” Orlando Sentinel, 02/21/12
Source: “Disney’s Anti-Obesity ‘Habit Heroes’ Exhibit At Epcot Causes Controversy,” The Huffington Post, 02/24/12
Source: “Disney’s Horrifying New Interactive Childhood Obesity Exhibit at Epcot,” Weighty Matters, 02/23/12
Image by The Consortium (Dave & Margie Hill/Kleerup), used under its Creative Commons license.

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