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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

DeSantis and Disney clash anew over Florida theme park’s authority

Ron DeSantis has been battling with Disney for the past year over the governance of its theme park resort.

By Brooks Barnes

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and The Walt Disney Co. clashed anew earlier this week, with the governor requesting an investigation into Disney’s effort to sidestep state oversight of its theme parks and Robert Iger, Disney’s CEO, blasting DeSantis as “anti-business” and “anti-Florida.”

Shortly before Disney’s annual shareholder meeting, DeSantis sent a letter to Melinda Miguel, Florida’s chief inspector general, asking for “a thorough review and investigation” into Disney’s effort to circumvent his authority.

DeSantis and the Florida Legislature restricted Disney’s autonomy in February by appointing a hand-picked oversight board for a special tax district, enacted in 1967, that has effectively allowed the company to self-govern Disney World. Previously, Disney selected the board members. But the new appointees — and, apparently, the governor — realized only last week that the Disney-controlled board, as one of its final actions, pushed through a development agreement with the company that would limit the new board’s power for decades to come.

The agreement gave Disney vast control over future construction in the district; the new board doesn’t have any say.

“These collusive and self-dealing arrangements aim to nullify the recently passed legislation, undercut Florida’s legislative process and defy the will of Floridians,” DeSantis wrote to Miguel, whom he appointed in 2019. “Any legal or ethical violations should be referred to the proper authorities.” A spokesperson for DeSantis added that “Disney is again fighting to keep its special corporate benefits and dodge Florida law. We are not going to let that happen.”

The new board has hired four law firms to scrutinize the matter and, potentially, take Disney to court.

DeSantis and Disney — Florida’s largest private employer and corporate taxpayer — have been sparring for more than a year over the tax district. It has long enabled Disney to control fire protection, policing, road maintenance and development planning at the 25,000-acre Disney World resort. The designation has been a crucial tool for Disney in developing the resort, which includes four theme parks, two water parks and 18 Disney-owned hotels.

Speaking at the shareholder meeting, Iger denounced DeSantis for moving to restrict Disney’s tax district autonomy — noting that the governor took action only after the company halted political donations in Florida and criticized a contentious state education law. Among many things, the law, called Parents Rights in Education, prohibits classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity for students through the third grade and limits it for older ones. Opponents labeled the legislation “Don’t Say Gay.”

“A company has a right to freedom of speech just like individuals do,” Iger said. “The governor got very angry over 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, in effect to seek to punish a company for its exercise of a constitutional right. And that just seems really wrong to me.”

Iger noted that Disney employs 75,000 people at Disney World, which is about 20 miles south of Orlando, and annually attracts 50 million visitors. Iger added that Disney was “currently planning” to invest more than $17 billion in the resort over the next decade, creating an estimated 13,000 new Disney jobs and thousands of indirect jobs. He said the unspecified expansion plans would attract more visitors to Florida and “generate more taxes.”

“And so our premise is that any action that thwarts those efforts simply to retaliate for a position the company took sounds not just anti-business, but it sounds anti-Florida,” Iger concluded.

In 2021, Disney World paid more than $780 million in state and local taxes, according to a Disney disclosure.

Disney’s annual shareholder meeting, which was held virtually Monday, seemed planned with DeSantis in mind. After a brief introduction by Susan E. Arnold, who is retiring as Disney’s chair, Iger opened the meeting with a video from a sunny Disney World. “We are so proud of Disney’s legacy here in Central Florida,” Iger said with a smile, with Cinderella’s castle rising in the background.

Iger went on to highlight expansion of the resort, including a new “Tron”-themed roller coaster that will open Tuesday and a new “Guardians of the Galaxy”-themed roller coaster that opened last year as part of a continuing overhaul of the Epcot park.

Just over a year ago, Disney’s response to the Florida education law overtook the company’s shareholder meeting. Bob Chapek, who was Disney’s CEO, tried to explain the company’s shifting response to the legislation — silence followed by soft disapproval followed by more aggressive condemnation. He ended up making things worse. Before the day was over, Disney employees were in open revolt, DeSantis had gone on attack, and the company had been drawn into a humiliating tit for tat with the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

Much has changed since then. Chapek was fired. Iger came out of retirement to retake Disney’s helm. Most of the outraged employees have been calmed. Disney and the Human Rights Campaign made up.

But LGBTQ issues continue to be a tricky matter for Disney to navigate. In this hyperpartisan moment, one side of the political divide has been pushing Disney to include same-sex relationships in animated movies; the other has ardently opposed that. One shareholder thanked Iger on Monday for LGBTQ inclusion in films like “Lightyear” and “Strange World.” Another, in a homophobic tirade, begged him to “turn Disney back to the apolitical, family-friendly place that it used to be.”

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