After months of wrangling between Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, and the multinational entertainment giant, Disney, the media company announced on May 18 that it would cancel a $1 billion construction project in Orlando, Florida.
This move seems to be part of the ongoing tug-of-war between the two, although the DeSantis side denies the connection. With over 75,000 people working for Disney in the sunshine state, DeSantis is engaging in a fight with one of the largest employers in Florida. What’s more, Disney is the biggest taxpayer in Central Florida.
DeSantis has gained much attention and criticism — even from some Republicans — for taking on the Disney empire. Meanwhile, Disney is recovering from streaming losses and declining cable subscriptions.
There’s been a lot happening in this highly publicised battle. Here’s an overview of the most important events and what is at stake for Florida.
How the fight broke out
It all started when the Parental Rights In Education Bill was signed into law by the Florida Senate on March 28, 2022, in Tallahassee. The so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law was publicly criticised by the Walt Disney Company. In a press release, they stated:
“Florida’s HB 1557, also known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, should never have passed and should never have been signed into law. Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that.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.”
DeSantis’s government saw the company’s comments as a threat to overturn the recently passed legislation. Following, his Press Secretary tweeted: “That’s an attempt to subvert the will of the people of Florida, and Governor DeSantis will not stand for that.”
However, a poll conducted by the University of North Florida showed that in 2022, right after the bill was passed, 49% of Florida voters opposed the new legislation, and 40% of voters supported or somewhat supported it.
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Shortly after Disney’s press release, DeSantis publicly announced a fight against the company when he said: “You’re a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you’re going to martial your economic might to attack the parents of my state? We view that as a provocation, and we’re going to fight back against that.”
In February, he signed a bill to limit Disney’s control over its self-governing special district near Orlando. This special district, a quasi-county, gives Disney, as a private corporation, unique autonomy over its land.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District, now renamed to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, allows Disney to function like a county government in charge of building permits, construction services, roads and other county responsibilities. On top of that, the Reedy Creek Improvement District benefits by being a special tax district.
In the February bill, the Republican governor effectively nullified the law that had granted Disney its special district authority and replaced the district board with allies of his.
Going to Federal Court
Disney did not hesitate to respond to DeSantis’ new bill, and in April, the company took the Governor and his government to a federal court in Tallahassee. In the case, the Walt Disney Company alleges that Florida’s government action in removing Disney’s right to govern their special district indirectly infringes on Disney’s right to freedom of speech under the first amendment.
The 77-page lawsuit, in simple terms, argues that the bill aiming to limit Disney’s power over the Reedy Creek Improvement District is a pretence to punish the company for speaking out against the Parental Rights In Education Bill.
In April, Bob Iger, the CEO of Walt Disney, told the company’s shareholders:
“The governor got very angry about the position Disney took and seems like he’s decided to retaliate against us, including the naming of a new board to oversee the property and the business. In effect, to seek to punish a company for its exercise of a constitutional right. And that just seems really wrong to me.”
Again, it did not take long for DeSantis to respond. Referring to Disney’s legal action, DeSantis’ Communications Director, Taryn Fenske, said: “This lawsuit is yet another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of the Florida voters and operate outside the bounds of the law.”
Furthermore, the state of Florida countersued Disney at the beginning of May, arguing that Disney’s special district zone is unlawful, attempting to regain control over the area that, since 1967, has been under the sole authority of the entertainment giant.
What’s at risk for Florida?
With Disney being the number two employer of Florida and generating the most significant tax payments in the state, the dispute is risking harming the economy of Central Florida.
Disney’s influence is not to be underestimated. In its most recent move, Disney has cancelled their $1 billion construction project in Orlando. While DeSantis’ allies say that the decision to abandon the plans is unrelated to the lawsuits, others suspect that the project’s cancellation is another move against DeSantis on Disney’s side, citing that “as recently as March 9 the plans were still actively going through the City of Orlando development process.”
Meanwhile, it’s full steam ahead for Disney in California. Company unveils expansion plans for Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Sorry, Florida, that you’ve got Ron DeSantis driving business away. pic.twitter.com/cRBpeFfroQ
— Mike Sington (@MikeSington) May 19, 2023
Disney is projected to invest over $17 billion and create over 13,000 jobs in Florida over the coming decade. It is unclear whether Disney will go through with these investments in light of the recent developments.
DeSantis is widely expected to announce his presidential campaign in the coming weeks. The Republican Party presidential nomination can be expected to be handed down in July 2024. His feud with Disney will likely continue, the two outcomes appearing just as uncertain.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Walt Disney World® Resort, Orlando, FL, USA. Featured Photo Credit: Brian McGowan.