Ron DeSantis has taken over the governing structure for Disney World following a political battle between the corporate giant and Florida’s Republican governor and conservative state lawmakers over a controversial measure that opponents have derided as the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Following weeks of pressure from LGBT+ advocates and Disney employees urging company leadership to publicly lobby against it, then-CEO Bob Chapek announced last year that the company would oppose the bill and suspend its political donations in the state.
The “Parental Rights in Education Act” prohibits instruction of “sexual orientation or gender identity” from kindergarten through the third grade and any such discussion “that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” in other grades.
But the broadly written law could freeze classroom speech involving LGBT+ people and issues, from civil rights history lessons to discussion of LGBT+ students, school staff and their families, which oppoents warn will have a discriminatory and chilling effect on campus speech. Following passage of the Florida law, 38 similar measures have been proposed in 20 states, including 26 measures in 14 states in their current legislative sessions alone.
After Disney’s public objection, Governor DeSantis and members of his administration lashed out at the company, igniting a feud that escalated to Republican threats to punish Disney’s operations in the state and ultimately resulted in his administration taking control of them.
The feud between Disney and the DeSantis administration and his Republican allies has blown up what has otherwise been a close relationship with one of the state’s largest employers and government officials from both parties.
The political heavyweight sends several lobbyists to Tallahassee for legislative sessions and spends tens of thousands of dollars through many Disney entities to both Democratic and Republican legislators each election cycle, acccording to campaign finance reports.
Campaign finance records reviewed by The Independent found that Disney entities contributed thousands of dollars to the re-election campaigns of the primary sponsors of the Parental Rights in Education Act, as well as at least $50,000 to the governor’s 2022 re-election campaign, despite the company’s public LGBT+ advocacy.
At an event on 27 February, the governor signed a bill that amounts to a state takeover of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the governing body around Disney World properties in Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista spanning 39 square miles and land across Orange and Osceola counties.
The district, implemented in 1967, allows Disney to effectively control its own land use and zoning rules and operate its own public services, including water, sanitation, emergency services and infrastructure maintenance.
With Disney as the primary landowner for the district, the company is largely responsible for all costs of those municipal services that otherwise would fall under the jurisdiction of county and local governments, including the taxpayers who live within them, an arrangement that essentially eases the burden from neighbouring counties and places it on one of the largest companies in the world. In effect, Disney taxes itself to foot the district’s bill for all of its municipal needs.
“Today, the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” the governor said inside a Reedy Creek fire station in Lake Buena Vista on 27 February. “There’s a new sheriff in town and accountability will be the order of the day.”
Marking a public reversal of his initial reasons behind the takeover, Governor DeSantis said the measure is aimed at what he called “a movement within the corporation itself … that said it’s their job or it’s their goal to inject a lot of this sexuality into the programming for young kids.”
The governor and his administration insisted that the initial proposal merely intended to block what they called “special privileges” for big business in the state, though his campaign fundraising messages promoting Reedy Creek’s demise pointed to Disney’s “woke” opposition to the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“Disney thought they ruled Florida,” an email from his campaign on 19 April said. “They even tried to attack me to advance their woke agenda. Now, parents see Disney for what it is. And now is the time to put the power back in the hands of Floridians and out of the pockets of woke executives.”
State lawmakers bristled over the governor’s initial plans to dissolve Reedy Creek over concerns that doing so would violate state law and burden Florida residents with higher property taxes, effectively forcing them to pay for infrastructure projects like road construction that Disney currently pays for through Reedy Creek.
Instead, the governor’s own appointees will be in charge of the district and its powers to tax, build and borrow money under a new “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District”.
That board will meet next week, “so buckle up,” Governor DeSantis said.
“There will be no additional tax burden on any Floridian in central Florida or otherwise,” the governor pledged on Monday, adding that the new arrangement “will reduce the tax burden for people in central Florida.”
Orlando-area Democratic state Rep Anna Eskamani said in a statement that it is “absolutely wild to see a self-proclaimed capitalist like DeSantis celebrate the government takeover of a private board.”
“All this bill does is rename Reedy Creek and allow Governor DeSantis to appoint hostile conservative cronies to a new board,” she said. “Disney still maintains the same tax breaks – but their First Amendment rights have been suppressed, and it sends a message to any private individual or company that if you don’t purport to what the governor wants, then you’ll be punished.”
The governor also announced that he will appoint the CEO of a right-wing ministry and founder of the right-wing activist group Moms for Liberty that the governor has supported to transform local school boards.
Ms Eskamani and opponents have called on the governor to instead support legislation that would close corporate tax loopholes instead, “but this was never about tax policy or corporate accountability,” she added.
“This was always about DeSantis and his sick agenda to target already marginalized people, and silent dissent.”
Jeff Vahle, the president of Walt Disney World Resort, said in a statement that the company was “ready to work within this new framework, and we will continue to innovate, inspire and bring joy to the millions of guests who come to Florida to visit Walt Disney World each year.”