ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Obesity experts on Friday applauded Walt Disney World for shuttering a new attraction that drew fierce criticism for its potential to shame overweight children and misrepresent the causes of the global obesity crisis.
"I think they (Disney) likely subscribed to that common misconception that this is something we should just be able to push away from the table and cure," said Ottawa bariatric surgeon Yoni Freedhoff, whose blog post sparked a public outcry over the attraction at Walt Disney Co's world-famous Florida theme park.
"The truth is, if it was that simple to manage weight, I'm pretty confident we wouldn't have a problem," said Freedhoff.
Disney last month unofficially opened the interactive exhibit called "Habit Heroes" at Epcot, one of the sites at the park, and introduced a companion online game.
In both, svelte heroes, "Callie Stenics" and "Will Power," combat fat and misshapen villains with names like "Lead Bottom" and "The Snacker."
"Here, they (children) are in Disney, the happiest place on earth, and basically Disney is being the schoolyard bully that's been making fun of them for years at home," Freedhoff said.
Freedhoff blogged on February 23 about what he called the "horrifying" exhibit.
Disney closed the exhibit two days later following complaints and petition drives by other advocates for the overweight and people with eating disorders.
Disney spokeswoman Kathleen Prihoda told Reuters no date has been set for Habit Heroes to reopen.
"We've closed it for the time being to further improve and refine the experience," Prihoda said. "We've received feedback from a variety of sources and we're taking it all into consideration at this time."
The exhibit was sponsored by two independent Blue Cross and Blue Shield organizations.
Spokesman John Herbkersman of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida told Reuters that initial reaction from Disney guests was positive. He said the Disney Imagineers created the exhibit, and that he did not know how much input his organization had in crafting its message.
The World Health Organization, which calls childhood obesity one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century, cites many causes, including a global shift in food processing, food marketing, the fat and sugar content of food, increased urbanization and changes in the way people get around.
"Kids have not suddenly suffered an epidemic loss of will power. I think the world in which children are growing up has changed very dramatically," Freedhoff said.
In January researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2009 and 2010, about one in three American adults and one in six children and teenagers were obese.
Laura Discipio said her organization, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, was one of several that urged its supporters to put public pressure on Disney to rethink Habit Heroes.
"They (Disney officials) said the goal is really to teach people how to be healthy. I said I get that, but you can't be villainizing children of size," Discipio said.
A petition started by the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance logged more than 300 signatures before the exhibit was closed, according to spokeswoman Peggy Howell.
"The attraction and game feature negative stereotypical characters, traditionally used to torment overweight kids, will potentially reinforce and strengthen a cycle of bullying, depression, disease, eating disorders and even suicidal thoughts," the petition stated.
Howell said members of her board of directors have received personal letters and phone calls from Disney asking for their input.
"The problem is quite complicated despite the fact that there is this truism that involves eating fewer calories and/or burning more of them," Freedhoff said.
"That truism is about as useful as buy low/sell high would be to making you a millionaire in the stock market. It's true. It's just not helpful."
Editing by Tom Brown and Xavier Briand