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Ron DeSantis is plotting revenge on Disney

The Florida governor refuses to lose to Disney as the company plans Pride Month celebrations.

People from the Walt Disney Company participate in the annual LA Pride Parade in West Hollywood, California, on June 9, 2019. 
David McNew/AFP via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

The long-running war between Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Disney executives continues to intensify.

DeSantis, out for revenge after suffering a major loss in his efforts to punish Disney for being “woke,” announced a new bill to rein in Disney’s theme parks Tuesday. In a return to the issue that first earned it the governor’s ire, the “Happiest Place on Earth” unveiled its first-ever event to celebrate Pride Month on April 14, complete with themed entertainment and specialty menu items.

It’s the latest development in the culture war between DeSantis and Disney executives, who last year publicly opposed his “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prevents teachers from talking about LGBTQ+ issues or people.

Disney got the best of DeSantis a few weeks ago after it managed to quietly disenfranchise the governor’s newly created state board that oversees the company’s special tax district, under which it has been able to develop and maintain its theme parks with relative independence.

Now DeSantis is striking back at Mickey Mouse in the form of a bill that would require new inspections of Walt Disney World rides and the monorail connecting its theme parks and hotels. He also suggested the new state board could convert land in and around the Orlando theme parks into a state park, a competing amusement park, or a state prison — and that the board should investigate raising taxes on Disney.

Disney is “not superior to the laws that are enacted by the people of the state of Florida,” DeSantis said at a press conference Tuesday near Disney World.

It’s not clear whether the bill, which will likely be passed in the final weeks of the Florida legislative session, would impose that much of a burden on Disney. To the extent that DeSantis is concerned with combating corporate “woke” culture, “I don’t see how putting additional regulations on a monorail does that,” said Maya Brown, a Democratic strategist in Florida.

Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

But whether or not DeSantis’s threats against the company are substantive, they’re a vehicle to redeem himself in a public relations battle that he’s been losing badly — so much so that his potential 2024 opponents for the Republican presidential nomination have taken notice.

“I don’t think Ron DeSantis is a conservative, based on his actions towards Disney,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is expected to make a decision on whether to run in the coming weeks, said Tuesday in an interview with Semafor. Former President Donald Trump wrote in a post on his social network Truth Social that DeSantis is being “absolutely destroyed by Disney.”

Matt Terrill, a Republican strategist based in Florida, said it’s telling that the governor’s potential opponents for the presidency are going on the attack.

“That just tells you that this could be a vulnerability for the governor in the primary,” he said.

Why Disney matters to DeSantis’s 2024 presidential prospects

At a moment when DeSantis has fallen far behind Trump in the polls and there’s speculation in GOP circles that the governor may have waited too long to formally announce a 2024 run, losing a fight with Disney is the last thing he needs.

A key part of DeSantis’s pitch for the presidency is his willingness to take on so-called “woke” corporations, invoked by Republicans in reference to those that embrace progressive racial and social justice policies, 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.”

DeSantis describes corporations like Disney as caving to the “woke gender theory” being pushed by the media by taking a stand on issues such as equal rights for LGBTQ+ Americans 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 tax 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.

That coup, of course, crumbled, with Disney turning the loss of its status into a win for the company. DeSantis claimed Tuesday that Disney has tried to “circumvent… the will of the people” in undermining the new board of the company’s special tax district.

But it’s not clear that Florida voters ever really wanted DeSantis to take on Disney. The governor may have won reelection by nearly 20 percentage points and ushered in a red wave in Florida in 2022. But Disney, the state’s largest employer, still proved more popular than him across multiple polls in the last year.

“He’s going around the country talking about these wins that he’s getting in this battle with corporations like Disney, instead of actually focusing on the issues that Floridians are dealing with: We’re getting hit hard with homeowners insurance prices that are through the roof, people can’t afford their rent,” Brown said.

It raises the question of whether DeSantis — in focusing on culture war battles including the one with Disney, but also on restricting abortion access and loosening gun restrictions — is making the right plays.

“The electorate, both in the primary and in the general election, is looking for people that can get things done, but ultimately, it’s got to be issues that you can win on,” Terrill said.

Clarification: This story has been changed to more clearly show that Disney announced its Pride celebrations before DeSantis announced his new legislative measures.