Out of all of the takes commemorating the first anniversary of the Pulse massacre in Orlando, none was as… singular in its vision as that from the Orlando Sentinel called “As Disney reports drop in guests, is Orlando’s post-Pulse embrace of LGBT too tight?” by one C. Britt Beemer. In it, Beemer suggested that a recent decline in Disney World attendance could be a result of the fact that “the city of Orlando has so much embraced the pro-gay/lesbian campaign after Pulse,” thereby alienating Disney’s Evangelical Christian demographic:
“United Orlando” or “Love Orlando,” with the gay flag in the background, might make some feel good. For evangelical Christians planning family vacations, however, that image is a real turn-off.
Beemer, chairman and CEO of research and consulting firm America’s Research Group and former Heritage Foundation employee, is referring to a recent report that found a dip in attendance at all of Orlando’s Disney parks in 2016 (compared to 2015)—the Magic Kingdom fell 0.5 percent (from 20.5 million to 20.3 million), as did Hollywood Studios (to 10.78 million), while admissions at Epcot and Animal Kingdom fell 0.7 percent (they had 11.7 million and 10.84 million visitors, respectively). In his writing, Beemer doesn’t cite these exact numbers—which I’m sure Disney execs weren’t happy about—but they are nonetheless far from dramatic plunges. Nor does Beemer cite the other, seemingly relevant information in the report: admissions at Universal Studios, a direct competitor of Disney World, were up 4.3 percent in 2016 (9.9 million visitors) and Orlando had more tourism than ever—up two million from 2015 to 68 million.
Beemer’s reasoning seemed selective and, worse, it was as though he were advocating Orlando tone down the gay friendliness that, mostly, came in the form of silent solidarity with the Pulse victims. So I contacted him to clarify his claims.
When reached by phone, Beemer told Jezebel that in his survey of 413 attendees of the Ark Encounter theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky, and/or the Creation Museum in Petersbury, Kentucky (both of which are owned by Ken Ham’s Answers in Creation, which commissioned America’s Research Group), he found that around 80 percent of them had originally planned to visit Disney World. Furthermore, the reason Disney’s numbers could have been impacted by evangelical apathy are because—again, according to his privately commissioned and unpublished survey results—“81 percent of [families attending Disney] are Evangelical Christians, and those going to Universal are 31 percent.” I have found no other demographic data to back up this claim.
“I think it was like 78.3, or 77.3—somewhere in that range—said they were originally going to go to Disney World, but they thought it would be better for children to not go to Orlando and have a Christian experience rather than an experience they thought might not be 100 percent favorable for their children,” said Beemer.
Beemer conceded to me, but not in his op-ed, that he’s “sure” Disney could be losing some of its market share to Universal. He also said he didn’t ask about the way ticket prices may have affected Ark Encounter/Creation Museum attendees’ choices (per day, Ark Encounter costs $40 for adults and is considerably cheaper for children, whereas a one-day ticket to the Magic Kingdom for people ages 10+ is $124).
In the Sentinel, Beemer wrote, “Perhaps the portrayal of the Pulse shooting as a gay-lesbian issue rather than an act of terrorism accounts for the drop in visitors.” He told me that at a recent Southern Baptist convention in Orlando, attendees questioned him for “two and a half hours” about all the gay flags they were seeing in Orlando.
“I kept saying, ‘Well it goes back to there are people out there who believe this attack was by a person wanting to killing gay people, not someone who was doing it purely because he was a terrorist,’” he recalled. “I tried to explain that to them. They were giving me the other questions: ‘Why was it done this way?’ When they left they were not happy campers.” He said Orlando “overplayed their hand” and that it irritated Southern Baptists.
“Imagine how the families of the people who died at Pulse feel—way worse than irritated!” I said.
Though I tried, I never got to the bottom of exactly what could have been done to appease the evangelicals Beemer cites. And to me, he distanced himself from them—he told me his op-ed doesn’t reflect his beliefs (though he is a Christian), but those of the people he’s surveyed. “I’m not opposed to the gay community. I have gay people working at my company. I’m not expressing a view that’s mine,” he said.
Though he allowed for the idea that extremists who claim to kill in the name of Islam are in fact homophobic, he repeatedly returned to his notion that the Pulse shooting was portrayed in the media as an anti-gay attack, and not a terrorist attack. The two are not mutually exclusive, though, and it seemed to me he was speaking of a mindset that refused to engage with the whole truth—that would rather not think about the violence enacted on gay people, instead to see this group as generic Americans for their own peace of mind. I suggested to him that if calling something what it is irritates people, they need a reality check.
Infuriating as that way of thinking is, I buy it. I’m not sure to what extent it exists, I don’t have Beemer’s numbers in front of me and I’m not a statistician, but surely anti-gay sentiment in America thrives and it’s conceivable that it would manifest itself in blocking people from seeing a massacre of gay people as just that. Regardless of the actual numbers, it is feasible that bigoted people would in fact notice Orlando’s gay friendliness and instead spend their money on a park like Ark Encounter where, according to a May report in the Washington Post, employees are required to denounce homosexuality in writing:
As a condition of employment, the museum and ark staff of 900, including 350 seasonal workers, must sign a statement of faith rejecting evolution and declaring that they regularly attend church and view homosexuality as a sin. So any non-Christians, believers in evolution, or members of the LGBT community — and their supporters — need not apply. (Although, due to less stringent hiring requirements for contractors, an actor who allegedly operated a gay porn site was hired to portray Adam in one of the Creation Museum’s original videos.)
Beemer’s repeated invocation of Ark Encounter was of particular note, especially when his op-ed discusses plans for its expansion, given his history with the park. In the Sentinel, Beemer refers to Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum as “clients,” but doesn’t reveal that Beemer and Ham co-authored the 2009 book Already Gone: Why your kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it. Furthermore, in 2015, there was a minor controversy when Answers in Genesis was found to have used inflated projection numbers for first-year attendance in attempt to secure tax breaks for its park: They said $1.2 million to $2.2 million, while another consulting firm Hunden Strategic Partners found the number was more likely to be in the $640,000 range. (The park was initially denied the incentive, but after Ham filed a lawsuit, it was granted it.)
Those high figures came from America’s Research Group. Hunden, in its report, also noted: “Furthermore, research by Beemer and America’s Research Group is featured in Already Compromised, another book authored by Ken Ham.”
Ark Encounter opened in July 2016, and Beemer maintains that the park is on pace to meet his original, disputed projection. “Right now we’re at 1.12 million,” he told me. In a blog posted on the last day of 2016, Ham claimed Ark Encounter had admitted 500,000 guests in its first six months in operation. Meanwhile, a variety of reports have noted that the theme park has failed to create the economic boom in Williamstown or its greater area, Grant County, that it seemed to promise. As of now, the only figures regarding admissions are available via Ham. (When Johanna Gohmann covered the park for Jezebel in December, she described it as crowded.)
Beemer refuted the idea that he’s “a Ken Ham clone” or that he has much stake in success of Answers in Creation’s attractions. “Other getting paid for my two studies, no,” he said when I asked him if he personally stands to benefit from Ham’s empire. He furthermore disputed the Hunden report because, “You cannot prove primary research wrong with market research.” He called Hunden “stupid” and said they should be “sued out of existence.”
Regarding Beemer’s ties to Ham (whose Creation Museum and Ark Encounter are merely referred to as “clients” in his op-ed), the Orlando Sentinel’s opinions editor Paul Owens provided Jezebel with this comment:
We were aware of Mr. Beemer’s business relationship with the Ark Encounter. He disclosed it in the third paragraph of his guest column.
Our decision to publish the piece does not amount to an endorsement of its argument. Our institutional opinion on the Pulse shooting, and the community’s response, was most recently presented in a front-page editorial on Monday, the one-year anniversary of the tragedy.
We have already received letters from readers objecting to the column and the Editorial Board’s decision to publish it. We are publishing two on tomorrow’s editorial page. We are open to publishing more.
Beemer’s op-ed is now preceded by an italicized caveat: “This is a guest opinion column by C. Britt Beemer. It does not reflect the views of the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board.”
At the end of our 50-minute conversation, Beemer thanked me for not screaming at him. “God bless you,” he said before we hung up.