Disney closes new exhibit after criticism for stigmatizing fat kids

Mar 1 2012 - 5:13pm

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Epcot's new Habit Heroes attraction, which tackles childhood obesity, has landed in big fat trouble.

Shortly after its unofficial opening last month, the interactive exhibit was blasted by critics for stigmatizing fat kids. Now, Disney has closed the Innoventions exhibit for "retooling."

The official opening date of March 5 has been postponed indefinitely, according to officials from Blue Cross and Blue Shield. The health insurer partnered with Disney to create the exhibit, which takes visitors through a series of interactive experiences to fight bad habits.

"Habit Heroes is currently in a soft-opening period, which gives us a chance to collect guest feedback and test and adjust the attraction prior to its opening," said John W. Herbkersman, spokesman for Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

And feedback they got.

"We're appalled to learn that Disney, a traditional hallmark of childhood happiness and joy, has fallen under the shadow of negativity and discrimination," came a heated response from the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.

"It appears that Disney now believes that using the tool of shame, favored so much by today's healthcare corporations, is the best way to communicate with children," said the association's statement. "Disney, in partnering with Blue Cross/Blue Shield, has taken the side of the bullies."

That's not how they meant it, said Herbkersman.

"Our goal is to ensure that the attraction conveys a positive message about healthy lifestyles in a fun and empowering way," said Herbkersman. "To work on further improving and refining the experience, the attraction is closed for the time being. We look forward to officially opening it soon."

Added Disney spokeswoman Kathleen Prihoda: "That's why we have a soft opening. So we can open it up to others and listen. We've heard the feedback."

The exhibit's companion website, habitheroes.com, is also "down for maintenance."

Housed inside Innoventions, the park's futuristic showcase of ideas, Habit Heroes features animated fitness buffs Will Power and Callie Stenics, who take groups of up to 12 guests through interactive rooms, where they fight bad habits such as too much television and junk food.

Cartoon villains include the super-sized Snacker and Lead Bottom.

The insurance company's goal is to encourage healthier habits among kids, so they will improve their health while lowering health-care costs, said insurance officials.

After reading about the attraction, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a bariatric surgeon in Ottawa, Canada, put a critical post on his WeightyMatters blog. "A little Dance, Dance Revolution and some broccoli spears ought to clear everything up, right?" he wrote. "Here's to Disney's reinforcing society's most hateful negative obesity stereotyping."

Freedhoff likened the exhibit to the state of Georgia's ad campaign that features obese kids talking about their struggles. Both demonstrate "a complete lack of understanding for childhood obesity."

After viewing the website, Peggy Howell, spokeswoman for the fat acceptance organization, said, "I was really disturbed to see the most negative habits were attached to really fat bodies. These pictures further the stigma against people of higher body weight."

As Disney and the insurance company respond, Howell would like to see them include people of all body sizes demonstrating bad habits. "We all have them," she said. She suggests perhaps a medium-size teen at a computer terminal for not enough exercise, or a thin youth wolfing down lunch on the run for gluttony.

The designers, she says, are on the right track with Sweet Tooth, a moderately sized character who represents anyone who has a penchant for sweets.

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(c)2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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