Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may have prematurely declared victory in his battle with Disney.
Last year, DeSantis made national headlines when he went after the company, the state’s largest employer, in retaliation for its opposition to his “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prevents teachers from talking about LGBTQ+ issues or people. He pushed the state legislature to strip the company of its status as a special tax district, under which it has been able to develop and maintain its theme parks with relative independence. And DeSantis replaced the board members governing that district, who’d previously been controlled by Disney, with conservative figures loyal to him.
But it seems that Disney’s lawyers outwitted him. The new board members overseeing the governance of Disney said in a meeting Wednesday that their predecessors had rendered them essentially powerless in a policy ratified just before they took over.
As part of that agreement, Disney is authorized to build another theme park in its special tax district, known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, so long as the company follows local laws on building parameters. Also, the five-person board, known as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, would need the company’s approval to make any significant changes to its property.
The new board’s only purview is to maintain roads and other essential infrastructure. The agreement limiting the board’s powers is effective for perpetuity or — should that be successfully challenged in court — at least “until 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.”
The board is exploring the possibility of challenging the agreement in court, or at least cutting a new deal with Disney.
“We’re going to have to deal with it and correct it,” board member Brian Aungst Jr. told the Orlando Sentinel. “It’s a subversion of the will of the voters and the Legislature and the governor. It completely circumvents the authority of this board to govern.”
But it’s not clear that the company will back down — and it has little, if anything, to gain by doing so. Disney says that the agreement was “appropriate” and “discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums in compliance with Florida’s Government in the Sunshine law.” The Sentinel reported that Disney did in fact hold a public meeting and briefly discussed the agreement before it was unanimously approved, but all that went unnoticed at the time.
For DeSantis, it’s a setback on a culture war issue that was supposed to be a winning one for him as he gears up for a potential 2024 presidential campaign. And it adds to a mounting list of recent troubles — from declining poll numbers to backlash over his dismissive remarks on Ukraine to escalating attacks from Trump — that could doom his candidacy before it’s even formally begun.
“His comfort zone is Fox and carefully controlled public performances from which independent media and dissenting voices are excluded,” said Mac Stipanovich, a former Republican consultant in Florida who endorsed Joe Biden in 2020. “When faced with real opponents, whether it is Donald Trump or Mickey Mouse, he does not fare well, as is often the case with bullies.”
DeSantis wants voters to think he won his fight with Disney
A key part of DeSantis’s pitch for the presidency is his willingness to take on “woke” corporations, with Disney as the primary example. And he wouldn’t be the only Republican candidate to lean on that rhetoric: Right-wing activist Vivek Ramaswamy, who kicked off his campaign in February, has been dubbed “the CEO of Anti-Woke, Inc.” by the New Yorker.
The governor’s battle with Disney is the subject of an entire chapter titled “The Magic Kingdom of Woke Corporatism” in DeSantis’s latest book, The Courage to Be Free. He writes about how he got married in Disney World, something he says was really his wife’s idea, not knowing that he would later be “squaring off against Disney in a political battle that would reverberate across the nation.”
He describes corporations like Disney as caving to the “woke gender theory” being pushed by the media by taking a stand on issues such as LGBTQ rights that he thinks they shouldn’t get involved in. And he writes about how he orchestrated a surprise special session to eliminate Disney’s special status — the “Florida equivalent of the shot heard ‘round the world.”
“Leaders must be willing to stand up and fight back when big corporations make the mistake, as Disney did, of using their economic might to advance a political agenda,” DeSantis writes.
He’s repeated that rhetoric on his book tour, which has been a kind of soft launch for his campaign. In Iowa earlier this month, he described Disney as the “800-pound gorilla of Florida politics” that “fought us when we were trying to protect kids.”
“We run the state of Florida. We don’t subcontract our leadership to a woke company based in California,” he told the crowd, which erupted in applause. “We don’t care what Disney says.”
Much like his former mentor Trump, DeSantis wants to be seen as a fighter, even if his “stock and trade is bombast and bravado, providing solutions to problems that do not exist,” Stipanovich said. Ahead of his reelection last year, he literally ran ads describing himself as “fighter” made by God and cosplaying as a Top Gun fighter pilot “dogfighting” with the “corporate media.”
But Disney is proving to be the foe that will not die.