Disneyland administrators have quietly reversed a 28-year-old policy that prohibited partners of the same sex from dancing together in the Magic Kingdom.
“The decision is years late, but let’s applaud it,” Morris Kight, a leading gay-rights activist, said Tuesday. “It’s a gentle victory, one that shows Disneyland is finally paying attention to the world around them.”
Disneyland spokesman Al Flores said the prohibition against same-sex dancing was dropped in mid-July in response to requests from patrons of Videopolis, a teen dance club that opened June 22 next to the family ride It’s a Small World.
“We try to be responsive to feedback we get from our guests,” Flores said. “Videopolis brings in a lot of teen-aged kids, and we see a lot of situations where two girls come together and want to dance and ask to. We have always said no, but we changed our minds.”
Flores said the change was not in response to a May, 1984, Superior Court ruling that struck down Disneyland’s ban on same-sex dancing as it applied to two gay men who were evicted from the Anaheim theme park in 1980.
“Although we lost that, we only lost on removing those two men from the dancing area,” Flores said. “We continued to enforce the policy until about a month ago.”
The ban on same-sex dancers was part of the original dance regulations adopted by the park in 1957, when it first allowed dancing. Flores said the prohibition was adopted “as a crowd-control measure” to ensure the safety of women on the dance floor and because some patrons might have found dance partners of the same sex offensive.
“We always try to avoid every kind of situation that would cause a disturbance,” Flores said. “We don’t serve alcohol. We enforce a dress code. It’s the reason most of our policies were created: to maintain a peaceful, happy atmosphere that won’t offend any of our guests.
“We didn’t want to have two women dancing and have some guy go out and hassle them,” he said. “We always said that before they even got out on the dance floor they had to have a partner of the opposite sex.”
But in September, 1980, two gay men arrived together at a Disneyland Date Night to “have a good time and see if we could change the policy,” said Andrew R. Exler. Exler, then 19, and Shawn Elliot, then 17, went on Space Mountain and the Matterhorn and then went to the Tomorrowland dance floor.
“It only took three minutes, and two security guards came and gave us the lecture about not dancing together,” Exler said Tuesday. “When we continued to dance, they physically removed us from the dance floor.”
Ten days later, Exler and Elliot sued the park, asking Orange County Superior Court to force Disneyland to allow dancing with members of the same sex.
Ronald Talmo, their attorney, said at the time that Exler and Elliot were protected under the so-called Unruh Civil Rights Act, which guarantees the rights of anyone, regardless of sex, to use business facilities.
In November, 1980, the court decided otherwise. Exler appealed the decision and a 4-year legal battle ensued. Finally, in May, 1984, Orange County Superior Court Judge James R. Ross struck down Disneyland’s ban on same-sex dancing as it applied to Exler and Elliot.
At the time of the decision, William M. Bitting, Disneyland’s trial lawyer, said, “We’ll abide by the order, but it doesn’t apply to others. If two (other) men show up tomorrow night to dance, Disneyland won’t let them on the dance floor.”
The amusement park still is in the process of appealing the decision, and Flores refused to comment on the case.
Which is why Exler was so surprised upon hearing that the park had quietly changed its policy and decided to allow men to dance with men and women to dance with women on the Videopolis floor, which can hold up to 3,000 dancers.
“I think it’s fantastic . . . but I’m extremely surprised,” he said. “I think the decision was definitely made in response to our winning our lawsuit. That and the international attention this case has received definitely had an impact on their decision.”
“I think Disneyland is finally waking up to the fact that people won’t put up with their discriminatory policies,” Exler said. Since the park opened in 1955 and adopted dress codes and other policies affecting guests, he added, “they have discriminated against thousands of people, and people are now speaking out about it.”
The change in policy was definitely noticeable at Videopolis on Saturday night as several thousand teen-agers danced under flashing, multicolored spotlights to the Top 40 sounds of the Disneyland house band, Donna McDaniel & Network.
McDaniel bounced and strutted on stage in a skintight black leotard and yellow-and-black patterned jacket, belting out: “You’re hungry. Take a bite of me. Ole, ole, oh . . . I think I’d like ta show ya. . . .”
Although most couples were male and female, others were not.
Dominique Hitchcock, a 15-year-old sophomore at Brea Olinda High School, and four other female friends had come to Videopolis to have a good time. Hitchcock, who spent most of the night dancing with her girlfriends, was unaware of Disneyland’s old rule.
“It’s just as fun to dance with your friends as it is with a guy,” Hitchcock said. “We go dancing together a lot. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
To Cliff Eveland, 19, a San Jose State University student who danced Saturday primarily with his friend, Gregg Consentino, 20, Disneyland’s previous prohibitions on same sex-dancing are “pretty stupid.”
“It’s just to have fun,” Eveland said, wiping perspiration from his brow after a strenuous number. “Sometimes you’re afraid to ask a girl to dance. I mean, it’s pretty bad to get rejected.”