As the battle between Disney and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis continues to notch regular updates, anyone who hasn’t been following from the beginning might be a bit confused. Why is this Republican presidential hopeful openly fighting with his state’s biggest taxpayer? Let’s take a look.
The current conflict began to ramp up in early 2022 with Florida’s HB 1557, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. DeSantis faced an outcry over the homophobic and harmful legislation from not only his constituents, but also employees at Walt Disney World and eventually the Walt Disney Company itself. DeSantis’ response to the outcry was to strip Disney of control over its Reedy Creek Special District, the area where Disney Parks has long encompassed its own city, originally put in place when Epcot was meant to be a prototype “city of tomorrow”—a planned community that Walt Disney himself hoped would be encompassed in the theme park resort area.
Why did Ron DeSantis strike back at Disney?
The Florida governor’s relationship with the company wasn’t always stormy; in fact, the presidential hopeful actually got married at the Walt Disney World. But he turned his back on the state’s main tourist draw when Disney—exercising its right to free speech—took a stand against his “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Known as HB 1557, the law outlaws and censors sexual orientation and gender identity discussions from schools.
Because Disney took its time speaking out, it faced walk-outs from LGBTQIA+ community members and allies in its employee pool. There were also employee concerns regarding then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s plans to move Disney’s Imagineering department to Florida—putting LGBTQIA+ families at risk in a state that was stripping away their protected rights, and requiring them start a new life someplace they weren’t safe. From their open letter at the time:
The recent statements by The Walt Disney Company (TWDC) leadership regarding the Florida legislature’s recent “Don’t Say Gay” bill have utterly failed to match the magnitude of the threat to LGBTQIA+ safety represented by this legislation. Primarily, those statements have indicated that leadership still does not truly understand the impact this legislation is having not only on Cast Members in the state of Florida, but on all members of the LGBTQIA+ community in the company and beyond.
Eventually, though, the Walt Disney Company made it clear it stood against the transgressive bill and released the following statement: “Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that. We are dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Florida and across the country.”
What were Disney’s special district privileges?
Disney’s public stand against the legislation prompted Governor DeSantis to play petty with the law, making a move against the Walt Disney Company that could actually have financial repercussions for the people of Florida. DeSantis ended the state’s long, lucrative relationship with Disney by removing its control over the Reedy Creek Improvement District—the 27 square miles of land that Disney Parks now occupies.
The area was originally intended to headquarter Walt Disney’s Epcot, which was described in 1966 as an example of a sustainable city of the future he planned to build. With Disney’s Florida Project, he dreamed of creating a new urban community where American free enterprise could test the latest innovations while addressing problems that suburban sprawl and the car industry were ignoring. Some elements of his original plans can be seen in Epcot attractions like Living With the Land, which actively works to provide a vision of futuristic solutions to farming.
After Disney’s passing, the original plans for Epcot were re-worked and incorportated into Walt Disney World. Still holding this special district control, Disney was able to act as an independent entity without having to go through the state for approvals on things like expansions, all while still paying the high property taxes in Florida’s Orange and Osceola counties. These taxes would not have been sustainable if Disney had not taken care of them since the park’s opening. This why DeSantis’ move was seen initially as a strike against the state’s economic landscape, especially central Florida residents who depend on Disney to take the brunt of that financial burden.
DeSantis—whose other interests include banning critical race theory—then created the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, overseen by a board whose members were appointed by DeSantis, and who would have power over municipal contracts and approvals on the contested 25,000 acres of land. DeSantis initially hoped the board would have influence on creative decisions, too, though that ended up not being the case; however, the district’s debt obligations were still Disney’s responsibility.
Bob Iger returned to lead Disney—and sue Florida
Disney went on to exercise its right to sue over First Amendment violations, as DeSantis made no effort to conceal that his political moves were retaliations for not supporting his rulings aimed at persecuting marginalized people. In the lawsuit Disney stated that the company “finds itself in this regrettable position because it expressed a viewpoint the Governor and his allies did not like. Disney wishes that things could have been resolved a different way. But Disney also knows that it is fortunate to have the resources to take a stand against the State’s retaliation—a stand smaller businesses and individuals might not be able to take when the State comes after them for expressing their own views. In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.”
In one of Bob Iger’s first investor calls when he returned to lead the Walt Disney Company, the public was eager to hear his thoughts on the matter as the lawsuit heated up, and he responded. “I think the case that we filed last month made our position and the facts very clear and that is really that this is about one thing and one thing only—and that is retaliating against us for taking a position about pending legislation. And we believe that in us taking that position we are merely exercising our right to free speech.”
He affirmed, “Also, this is not about special privileges or a level playing field or Disney in any way using its leverage around the state of Florida. But since there’s been a lot said about special districts and the arrangement that we have, I want to set the record straight on that too. There are about 2,000 special districts in Florida. Most are established to foster investor development, where we were one of them. He basically made it easier for us—and others, by the way—to do business in Florida, and we built a business that employs, as we said before, over 75,000 people, and attracts tens of millions of people to the state. So while it is easy to say that the Reedy Creek Special District that was established for us over 50 years ago benefited us, it is misleading to not also consider how much Disney benefited the state of Florida. And we are also not the only company operating a special district. I mentioned 2,000—the Daytona Speedway, it has one. So do the Villages, which is a permanent retirement community, and there are countless others.”
Iger pointing out that other special districts were allowed to operate as they were really drove the point home. “So if the goal is leveling the playing field in the uniform application of the law or government oversight of special districts, [that] needs to occur or be applied to all special districts,” he said. “There’s also a false narrative that we have been fighting to protect tax breaks as part of this. But in fact we are the largest taxpayer in Central Florida. We pay more taxes, specifically more real estate taxes, as a result of that special district. And we all know there was no concerted effort to do anything to dismantle what was once called Reedy Creek Special District until we spoke out [against DeSantis’ anti-LGBTQIA+] legislation. So this is plainly a matter of retaliation while the rest of the Florida special districts continue operating basically as they were.”
What’s more, Iger said, this ongoing feud has the potential to leave real damage behind. “I think it’s also important for us to say our primary goal has always been to be able to continue to do exactly what we have been doing there, which is investing in Florida. We are proud of the tourism industry that we created and we want to continue delivering the best possible experience for guests going forward. We never wanted—and we certainly never expected—to be in the position of having to defend our business interests in federal court, particularly having such a terrific relationship with the state as we have had for more than 50 years. We employ thousands of people and, by the way, we pay them above the minimum wage, substantially above the minimum wage, dictated by the state of Florida. We also provide them with great benefits and free education. So, I’m going to finish what is obviously kind of a long answer by asking one question: does the state want us to invest more, employ more people, and pay more taxes—or not?”
What’s the latest update on the Disney vs. DeSantis feud?
This week, in a whimpering bid to continue to embarrass himself—to the point where fellow deep-in-hot-water candidate Trump feels comfortable trolling him within their own party—the Florida Governor is now trying to claim immunity from the lawsuit. Florida’s attorney statement, as reported by Deadline, described the motion as follows: “Although Disney grabbed headlines by suing the Governor, Disney—like many litigants before it who have challenged Florida’s laws—has no basis for doing so. Neither the Governor nor the Secretary [of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity] enforce any of the laws at issue, so Disney lacks standing to sue them,”
So the messy battle continues, with DeSantis acting above the law by chasing a mouse he can’t catch or control, while seeing his traps blow up in his own face. Aren’t there Mickey Mouse cartoons about this sort of thing?
More to come!
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