More women are leading Disney’s theme parks, resorts and attractions

For the first time all four Disney World theme parks are headed by women vice presidents

For more than six decades, Disney’s cast member training has had -- at its core --- “The Four Keys” of Disney’s success: Safety, Courtesy, Show, and Efficiency. In September of 2020, Disney added a Fifth Key: Inclusion, as the company admitted it can do better at making its theme parks, attractions, and resorts more diverse and more welcoming.

One of the key people leading this company-wide mandate is Carmen Smith, recently promoted to Vice President of of Creative Development and Inclusion Strategies at Walt Disney Imagineering, Disney’s in-house design team.

In June 2020, in her former role as Vice President of Global Strategies, Smith was one of those announcing Brer Rabbit and pals will soon be moving out of “Splash Mountain” at Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Disney’s first black princess, Tiana from 2006′s “The Princess and the Frog” will be moving in as part of a makeover that will be no small feat, considering the existing sets are primarily made of concrete.

Splash Mountain in Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., will soon be completely reimagined, inspired by the animated Disney film “The Princess and the Frog.” Guests will join Princess Tiana and Louis on a musical adventure as they prepare for their first Mardi Gras performance, featuring some of the powerful music from the film. (Disney)

But Brer Rabbit, his Briar Patch, his Laughing Place and even the mountain itself, Chickapin Hill, are all from arguably Disney’s most controversial film of all time, “Song of the South.” The ambitious blend of animation and live-action won Academy Awards, but also drew criticism from groups like the NAACP even when it was first released in 1946. It has only grown more problematic in the decades since and has been locked in the Disney Vault since its last theatrical showing in 1986.

Transforming a beloved classic Disney ride like “Splash Mountain” is always a tricky assignment no matter the reasons, but Smith is actually working on transforming two attractions at the same time.

She was once again quoted as Disney announced big changes to “The Jungle Cruise” rides on both coasts, which are known for bad puns, less-than-realistic animals and also encounters with head-hunters and other “savage” depictions that have not dated well.

Jungle Cruise at Walt Disney World (Disney Parks Blog)

Smith also helped lead a new exhibit at Epcot’s American Adventure, inspired by the Disney-Pixar film “Soul” and the history of jazz.

A native of New York, she graduated from Hunter College with a degree in communication arts, and later earned a Master’s degree in international administration from New York University.

In an official profile, Smith said the Splash Mountain assignment “gives our company an opportunity to showcase our first African-American Princess. We need to be able to tell stories that are inspiring and enlightening but also that speak to a community that has not been well-represented in our Parks and Resorts.”

She calls the Jungle Cruise, “a unique opportunity to basically tell a story that does not perpetuate any stereotypes and to make sure that it’s reflective of our Guests in a very positive way, but it also gave us an opportunity to salute the Skippers that are critical to the experience that our Guests have.”

Carmen Smith, Vice President of of Creative Development and Inclusion Strategies at Walt Disney Imagineering. (Image: Disney) (WKMG 2021)

While Smith’s role is putting her increasingly in the spotlight, other important women have played critical roles throughout Walt Disney World’s nearly 50 years of operation.

Meg Crofton was one of those trailblazers.

Born in 1953, Crofton graduated Florida State University and later earned a master’s degree, before starting her Disney career in 1977. Her first assignment was marketing manager for Vista-United Telecommunications, a subsidiary that provided telecommunication services to the Florida resort. After a brief stint away, Crofton re-joined Vista-United as operations manager in 1981, before branching out to manage Disney’s Golf Resort, now Shades of Green, in 1984.

After a steady rise, Crofton was promoted to executive vice president of human resources for all of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts in 2002.

Crofton then made history as the first female president of Walt Disney World in 2006, overseeing more than 60,000 local cast members. She took on her final assignment, President of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts’ U.S. and France operations in 2013.

Meg Crofton retired in 2015 as President of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts' U.S. and France operations. (Disney)

A year later, Crofton announced plans to retire saying, in part “I am deeply proud of every moment I have spent here and feel richly blessed to have had a ringside seat to watch our Company’s special brand of magic touch hearts.”

She retired on June 1, 2015 after nearly 38 years of making magic.

Later that year, Crofton was given one of the ultimate Disney honors: her very own window above a shop on Main Street, USA in the Magic Kingdom. It features her full name, “Meg Gilbert Crofton” underneath the “Center for Leadership Development & Mentoring” and a motto: “We start leaders on their journeys.”

Crofton paved the way for numerous other women to grow in prominence at Walt Disney World, like Chef Yolanda Lazo Colon ,who is both the creative lead and manager of Amorette’s Patisserie at Disney Springs, and Chef Amanda Lauder who fills a similar role at the other Disney-owned sweet spot at the Springs, The Ganachery.

Chef Yolanda Lazo Colon and Chef Amanda Lauder. (Image: Disney) (WKMG 2021)

A more direct example of Crofton’s legacy: for the first time, all four Walt Disney World theme parks are led by women.

Jackie Swisher took over as Disney’s Hollywood Studios Vice President in July 2020. Her nearly 18-year Disney career also includes a time as Vice President of Worldwide Safety Services.

This month Melissa Valiquette formally took over as the Magic Kingdom’s Vice President, after running EPCOT from July 2015 until February. Kartika Rodriguez was recently named as Valiquette’s replacement as VP of Epcot. She has been with Disney for 15 Years.

Also in time for Women’s History Month, Sarah Riles was tapped to become the next Vice President of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Riles previously was the Vice President of Optimization & Business Transformation. She has been with Disney for over 22 years.

About the Author:

Ken Pilcher is a lifelong Floridian with more than 30 years in journalism experience. He joined News 6 in 2003 and has covered Central Florida attractions and theme parks since 1988. He currently produces News 6 at 7 p.m.