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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

DeSantis, in latest volley against Disney, suggests punitive steps


A group of men takes a selfie in front of Cinderella’s Castle during the Gay Days Red Shirt Day at Magic Kingdom in Bay Lake, Fla., on June 4, 2022. Disney World, which is the site of customer-driven Gay Days during the year, has routinely been criticized as “woke” by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

By Brooks Barnes


In what has taken on the trappings of a grudge match, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida punched Disney anew earlier this week, announcing new legislation that would override the company’s recent effort to sidestep state oversight of its theme parks.


DeSantis also suggested a variety of potential punitive actions against Disney — the state’s largest private employer and corporate taxpayer — including reappraising the value of Walt Disney World for property tax levies and developing land near the entrances to the resort.


“Maybe create a state park, maybe try to do more amusement parks — someone even said, like, maybe you need another state prison,” DeSantis said at a news conference near Disney World.


Two weeks ago, DeSantis — a leading Republican presidential contender although he has not officially declared that he is running — floated the idea of raising taxes on Disney hotels and imposing tolls on roads that lead to its theme parks. He has also requested an investigation by Florida’s chief inspector general into Disney’s efforts to circumvent his authority.


Disney declined to comment Monday.


Robert Iger, Disney’s CEO, previously characterized DeSantis as “anti-business” and “anti-Florida” for his actions. Iger has also signaled that future investment in Disney World could be at risk if the governor continued to use Disney as a political punching bag; the company has earmarked more than $17 billion in spending at the resort over the next decade, growth that would create an estimated 13,000 jobs at the company.


Iger said the unspecified expansion plans would attract more visitors to Florida and “generate more taxes.” Disney paid and collected a total of $1.2 billion in state and local taxes in 2022, according to company disclosures.


DeSantis and The Walt Disney Co. have been sparring for more than a year over a tax district that encompasses Disney World, the 25,000-acre resort south of Orlando that employs 75,000 people and attracts 50 million visitors annually. The district, created in 1967, effectively turned the property into its own county, giving Disney unusual control over fire protection, policing, road maintenance and development planning.


After Disney criticized a contentious state education law and halted political donations in Florida, DeSantis and the Florida Legislature restricted Disney’s autonomy by appointing a hand-picked oversight board for the district. (Previously, Disney selected the board members.) But the new appointees and the governor discovered in late March that the Disney-controlled board, as one of its final actions, had pushed through a development agreement that would limit the new board’s power for decades to come.


The maneuver, which Disney has defended as entirely legal and done in “open, noticed public forums,” enraged the governor’s appointees and generated humiliating media coverage for him: DeSantis, outwitted by a mouse.


On Monday, DeSantis said the Legislature would introduce a bill, likely next week, that would “revoke” the last-minute development agreement — which he called a “statutory scheme” and a “sham” — and return power to his board appointees. He also said an effort was underway to give the state new authority over ride safety inspections at Disney World, as well as its monorail transportation system. Based on the governor’s comments, it appeared that the state’s two other large theme park companies, Universal and SeaWorld, would not be subject to additional safety inspections.


“They are not superior to the laws that are enacted by the people of the state of Florida,” DeSantis said of Disney. He framed his actions as “the people’s will.”


To many, it appears more like a tussle designed to heighten his own political ambitions — to dominate Disney and force it to bow down. DeSantis routinely rails against the company, which he calls a “woke” corporation, at events both in state and out of state. He often describes the fight in personal terms, including by saying “there’s a new sheriff in town” who will no longer allow Disney to have outsize sway in Florida.


“It’s hitting the point of absurdity,” Anna Eskamani, a Democratic state representative from the Orlando area, told the Orlando Sentinel on April 8. “It’s about DeSantis looking big and bad next to Disney.”


Florida newspaper columnists and editorial boards have also criticized his campaign. “Let. It. Go,” wrote the Sentinel on April 2 in an editorial, referring to the popular song from the Disney movie “Frozen.”


Others applaud him. Carolina Amesty, a Republican state representative whose district includes the Disney World area, appeared with DeSantis on Monday and blasted the company with several grievances, including “indoctrinating” children with “radical gender ideologies.”


“They have pushed far-left narratives and lies about our great state, and now they think that the rules don’t apply to them,” Amesty said. “Well, I have news for the woke administration at Disney: This is not California.”


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