Ron DeSantis moved to penalize company after spat over ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed a bill that takes control of a special tax district surrounding Walt Disney World that for half a century allowed the Walt Disney Co. to operate with a high degree of autonomy.
“The corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” DeSantis said during a news event at Lake Buena Vista near Orlando.
State Republicans last year targeted Disney after it publicly clashed with DeSantis, who is widely considered to be running for president in 2024, over a law that restricts classroom instruction of gender and sexual orientation, known by its opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” measure.
In March, Disney’s then-chief executive officer, Bob Chapek, publicly voiced disappointment with the bill limiting LGBTQ discussion in schools, saying he called DeSantis to express concern about the legislation becoming law.
In a move political observers viewed as retaliation, Florida lawmakers this month passed a bill, which DeSantis signed into law, that authorizes the governor to appoint five supervisors to oversee traditional municipal services, such a fire protection, public utilities, waste collection and road maintenance in the region where Disney World operates.
The quasi-government entity also has the authority to raise revenue to pay outstanding debt and cover the cost of services.
“We have a situation here that was basically indefensible from a policy perspective,” DeSantis said. “How do you give one theme park its own government and then treat all the other theme parks differently? We believe that that was not good policy.”
Speakers at the bill-signing ceremony included a parent who criticized Disney for speaking out against the state’s education bill, saying the company, “chose the wrong side of the moral argument.” Another person who identified himself as a longtime Disney theme park employee took issue with the company’s policies regarding vaccinations.
District key to establishing Disney World
The new law changes the district’s name from the Reedy Creek Improvement District to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and subjects it to various layers of state oversight.
The creation of the self-governing district was instrumental in Disney’s decision to build near Orlando in the 1960s. The company had told the state it planned to build a futuristic city that would include a transit system and urban planning innovations, so it needed autonomy in building and deciding how to use the land. The futuristic city never materialized and instead morphed into a second theme park that opened in 1982.
A spokesperson for Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Disney World is the largest employer in central Florida with close to 75,000 employees and drew 36.2 million visitors in 2021, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.
In taking on Disney, DeSantis furthered his reputation as a culture warrior willing to battle perceived political enemies and wield the power of state government to accomplish political goals, a strategy that is expected to continue ahead of his potential White House run.
The feud also reinforced the governor’s brash, go-it-alone leadership style, penalizing a massive employer, tourism driver and political donor in the state over the company’s stance on a piece of legislative policy.
DeSantis, whose book, The Courage to be Free, is coming out Tuesday, has moved in recent weeks to expand his political network through fundraisers and meetings with donors, elected officials and conservative influencers, adding to the speculation around his larger political aspirations.
The coming months will be critical to DeSantis as he builds his profile out beyond Florida. He is expected to use the coming regular legislative session, which begins next week, to bolster his conservative agenda before he announces his candidacy for president.
With files from The Associated Press
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