UPDATE: 2/28 2:23 p.m. -- Disney responded to our inquiries about the exhibit's closure with the following statement:
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.
UPDATE: 2/26 2:08 p.m. -- Disney's Habit Heroes website has been shut down indefinitely for maintenance. "Sorry, Habit Heroes is down for maintenance," reads the website. Blogs Mickey Updates, Touring Plans and The Epcot Explorer's Encyclopedia have also reported that the exhibit has been suspended until further notice following the outpouring of negative reactions, though we have not been able to confirm this with Disney.
* * *
Disney World has officially joined the fight against childhood obesity -- and the reactions are mixed.
An interactive exhibit named Habit Heroes opened on February 3rd as part of Disney's Innoventions, a two-building playspace at Epcot, the Orlando Sentinel reports. It's co-sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield, and features protagonists Callie Stenics and Will Power who lead participants through a series of activities aimed at destroying “villains” bearing names like Sweet Tooth, Lead Bottom and The Snacker. (Scroll down to see images of the characters.)
The purpose of the exhibit, according to Jennifer Fickley-Baker, Social Media Manager of the Disney Parks Blog, is to "[encourage] children of all ages to learn healthy lifestyle habits and become more active." But while 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 Orlando Sentinel describes the Epcot exhibit:
In the first of three interactive rooms, visitors confront (remote) Control Freak and blow up raining televisions. Next they take on Sweet Tooth and Snacker, and wage a food fight with video-arcade style guns that abolish junk food using healthy food as ammunition. Broccoli and apples knock out cream puffs and hot dogs.
Finally, the group upends Lead Bottom in a room where Just Dance-style technology gets everyone moving. Each guest stands in his or her own spotlight and gets down while heart rates get up.
Then, the theme park experience continues off-site on the Internet. On Disney's website, children can play virtual games connected to vanquishing each of the bad habits. And while the real-life exhibit only features three villains, the online component expands the crew to include characters like Drama Queen (gossiping), Ice Cappuccino (too much caffeine), Sweet Tooth (too many sweets) and Insecura (who knew that lack of self-esteem was a bad habit?). The website even includes a section for parents that encourages participation in Habit Heroes' mobile component: “Once your kids experience Habit Heroes online, they can use your smartphone to play Habit Heroes mobile, where parents and kids can work together to become Heroes to fight the bad health habits in their own lives.”
Disney is far from alone in creating programming to combat unhealthy lifestyles. Look no further than the Michelle Obama-endorsed “Let's Move” initiative. Rates of childhood obesity have risen to 17 percent in recent years -- triple what they were a generation ago. However, questions of how to best address these numbers and the health complications associated with obesity remain.
Yoni Freedhoff, a family doctor and founder of Ottawa's Bariatric Medical Institute, took to his blog Weighty Matters to express frustration with Disney's tactics. He says the bad habit avatars enforce vicious stereotypes about fat people:
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?
Writer and activist Ragen Chastain, who recently launched the “Support All Kids” campaign to counter the anti-obesity ads in Atlanta, also wrote a response on her blog, Dances With Fat. She says the caricature-like images of the heroes and their bad habit counterparts brought her to tears. "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," she wrote.
Do you think that programs like Disney's help kids develop healthy habits? Or do they ultimately do more harm than good?
LOOK: Some of Disney's "bad habit" avatars.