Disney’s Quiet Plan for Revenge Unleashes a DeSantis Firestorm
In the feud between Disney and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R), one thing’s clear: tempers haven’t cooled. The two sides, who’ve been at odds since the company openly attacked parents’ rights in education, are back at each other’s throats now that CEO Bob Iger secretly undermined the state’s plans to have a seat at the company’s table. But if the Mouse House thinks it’s outmaneuvered conservatives, Republicans say they have another thing coming.
It wasn’t until last week that DeSantis’s team realized what Iger had done. More than a year into this spat over Florida’s education law, the two sides are still playing a sophisticated game of chess over Disney’s powers. And the stakes have never been higher. Thanks to a special legislative carve-out, the Magic Kingdom had been operating as its own self-governing district for more than half a century. Under the arrangement, they could approve their own construction projects, bypass local zoning and tax laws, even install their own nuclear power plant without asking permission. It was a sweetheart of a deal for Disney — until they declared war on Florida’s moms and dads.
When then-CEO Bob Chapek belatedly blasted the law (which happened to be enormously popular with Democrats), DeSantis decided the company’s meddling had finally crossed the line. Postponing conversations about sex and gender until the fourth grade isn’t a radical idea, he argued. And as long as he’s governor, the state will not be run by “California corporate executives,” DeSantis said. “We will continue to recognize that in the state of Florida, parents have a fundamental role in the education, health care and well-being of their children. We will not move from that. I don’t care what corporate media outlets say. I don’t care what Hollywood says. I don’t care what big corporations say. Here I stand. I’m not backing down.”
And he didn’t. To the raucous cheers of conservatives, DeSantis yanked the rug out from under Disney, ending the Reedy Creek district and replacing it with the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board filled with Republicans handpicked by the governor himself. What DeSantis didn’t know is that on February 8, Disney officials had met and signed a hush-hush agreement that stripped Florida of its powers before the new board even convened. Under this clandestine document, all decisions would be rerouted through Disney, neutering the GOP of its oversight.
In a big middle finger to DeSantis, the members even wrote in this absurd clause: “This declaration shall continue in effect until twenty-one (21) years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, King of England living as of the date of this declaration.” Originally, reporters thought it was a joke. But local News 6 reporter Mike DeForest, who got his hands on the text, tweeted that it was, in fact, “absolutely real.”
Imagine the surprise of the Central Florida Tourism board when they convened for the first time last Wednesday, only to find their hands had been tied. “The board announced that a hired special council [sic] discovered agreements were made in February between Disney and Reedy Creek, weeks ahead of the signing of HB-9B [the law dissolving Reedy Creek], which handed over direct control of the district’s development rights and privileges to the company,” the Orlando Sentinel explained.
Ron Peri, who’d been appointed by DeSantis to serve on the board, was flabbergasted at the underhandedness of the move. “I cannot tell you the level of my disappointment in Disney,” he said. “I thought so much better of them. This essentially makes Disney the government. The board loses, for practical purposes, the majority of its ability to do anything beyond maintain the roads and maintain basic infrastructure.”
Another board member, Brian Aungst, insisted the gloves were about to come off. “They have tried to take [the governing authority] away from this board, the ability to provide that oversight, and we’re not gonna let that stand.”
On Monday, DeSantis’s office warned that “all legislative options are back on the table,” hinting at even more painful punishments for the company, whose financial picture is bleak enough to lay off 4,000 employees. (Apparently, Disney’s “not-so-secret agenda” of grooming kids is as unprofitable as it is unpopular.)
In a letter to the state’s chief inspector general and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s commissioner, the governor asks for a “thorough review and investigation” of the company’s workaround, pointing out that “these collusive and self-dealing arrangements aim to nullify the recently passed legislation, undercut Florida’s legislative process, and defy the will of Floridians. … Any legal or ethical violations should be referred to the proper authorities,” DeSantis insists.
Even the state’s attorney general, Ashley Moody, is wading into the battle — “demanding emails, text messages, and other communications” that “[discuss] an intentional goal of circumventing, avoiding, frustrating, mitigating, or otherwise attempting to avoid the effects of anticipated actions by the Florida Governor and Florida legislature.”
Since then, the war of words has only escalated, with Iger taking time out from his shareholder’s meeting Monday to blast DeSantis as “anti-business” and “anti-Florida.” “A year ago, the company took a position on pending Florida legislation,” Chapek’s woke replacement said. “And while the company may have not handled the position that it took very well, a company has a right to freedom of speech just like individuals do.”
“The governor got very angry about the position Disney took,” Iger claimed, “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.”
Team DeSantis fired back. “While a company has First Amendment rights, it does not have the right to run its own government and operate outside the bounds of Florida law,” the governor’s communications director told The Daily Caller. “The Florida Legislature and Governor DeSantis worked to put Disney on an even playing field, and Disney got caught attempting to undermine Florida’s duly-enacted legislation in the 11th hour.”
Disney’s scheming may have bought the company some time from the political accountability they’re so desperate to avoid, but at what cost? Surely Iger has learned the hard way that in the fight to radicalize Florida, don’t bet against DeSantis.
Suzanne Bowdey serves as editorial director and senior writer at The Washington Stand.