DeSantis vs. Disney: Will they ever agree on a ceasefire?

‘They clearly just want to have a nuclear war with the state of Florida,’ one GOP lawmaker says. 

Image by ErikAggie from Pixabay

DeSantis vs. Disney wasn’t supposed to play out like this.

That is, most people in Florida politics during the 2022 legislative session predicted it would be just a brief skirmish. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis targeting the Walt Disney Co. by dissolving the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the now-former special taxing and governing district for Walt Disney World, was just a play for Republican 2024 primary voters, they said. It’d go away if Disney bit its tongue, they said. 

The clash started during the 2022 legislative session, when DeSantis championed the Parental Rights in Education law that would bars classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in early school grades. Dubbed “don’t say gay” by opponents, the measure (SB 1557) was condemned by Disney after public pressure. 

The company then vowed to reevaluate its campaign contributions in the state. DeSantis and Republican legislators responded by nixing Disney’s control over its Central Florida property by dissolving the Reedy Creek district.

Few predicted the quarrel would escalate, drawing international attention and eventually centering around dueling lawsuits, alleging political retaliation and undermining state law

Politically, Disney is at its lowest point in Florida since Walt Disney first started secretly buying land around Orlando in the 1950s. Walt Disney Parks and Resorts’ over 40 lobbyists couldn’t stave off a fight over control of their development district and a move to require monorail inspections. And the lawsuits between the company and the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight District district signal the conflict isn’t likely to resolve itself anytime soon. 

That’s quite a turn for what was historically one of the most influential companies in the state. A request for comment on the ongoing dispute is pending with a Disney spokesperson. 

DeSantis holds a press conference in April at the Reedy Creek Administration Building in Lake Buena Vista to announce legislative action to nullify the agreement between the Reedy Creek Improvement District and Walt Disney World, which was designed to permit Disney to control its theme park property. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Disney’s influence was cemented in Florida for decades

It wasn’t always like this: Disney started out on DeSantis’ good side, pursuing state tax breaks with the help of DeSantis’ office and getting a carve out on a tech censorship bill he championed. 

Florida politicians, former lobbyists and various experts generally agree the fall from grace is temporary. They predict there will be a return to form for Disney’s influence in the Legislature and in the governor’s office. 

Some, however, think the tension will ease when DeSantis is no longer Florida’s chief executive and is replaced by someone without presidential ambitions. That could be a while. Others argue the public-facing feud has no deeper substance to it other than perception politics.

Mac Stipanovich, a retired political strategist and former lobbyist for Universal Studios, said Disney’s former heights of influence made sense. They have one of the highest tax bills in the state, one of the largest economic impacts, and deepest political donation pocketbooks before the ongoing feud made them close it. 

“Disney was first among equals. They were unique in terms of their appeal, their presence and their power,” said Stipanovich, a Republican who turned independent after the election of President Donald Trump.

As a critic of DeSantis, he argues the feud that has weakened Disney’s influence is not one Florida Republican leaders outside of DeSantis’ circle wanted. The situation has halted Disney’s checks to the party, namely to the Florida Republican Senatorial and House committees. 

Prior to the standoff, few gripes had been made about their self-governance or the quality of its infrastructure, Stipanovich said. “Disney has been hard pressed for the last two years by DeSantis and by the Legislature, which is totally his captive. Now, is this something that they would do on their own without the pressure and intimidation from DeSantis? I seriously doubt it,” he said.

An entranceway to Walt Disney World on February 8, 2023 in Orlando. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Critics say Disney always ‘had too much political power’

Republican state Rep. Randy Fine, a DeSantis ally and the sponsor of the bill that dissolved the Reedy Creek Improvement District, disagrees. He said the special privileges granted to Disney, like the ability to take over private land through eminent domain and issue their own taxpayer-backed debt, were long in the crosshairs of conservatives looking to remove them. 

“This was not a new idea. It was an old idea. But it could never be successfully done because Disney had too much political power,” Fine said. “When they decided to spit in the face of Florida voters, they lost their political power. And so that policy that was always out there was able to be completed.”

Fine, of Brevard County, sees the continued actions from the company, either its lawsuit or comments Disney CEO Bob Iger made threatening to pull future investment from the state, as what is driving the situation further. “They clearly just want to have a nuclear war with the state of Florida,” Fine said. 

While the battle between DeSantis and Disney has been widely publicized, some in Florida politics don’t believe that it goes much deeper than surface level. 

Former Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando said Fine’s Reedy Creek bill was about fueling DeSantis’ political ambitions, not bringing about meaningful corporate reform in Florida. 

“The way you hold corporations accountable is making sure they pay their workers fair wages and benefits, and that they pay the taxes they owe,” Smith said. “The way to hold corporations accountable is not through temper tantrums and authoritarian government takeovers, which is what DeSantis is doing.”

And state Rep. Anna Eskamani, another Orlando Democrat, told City & State that the conflict is cosmetic: Policies that still benefit Disney are still making it through the Legislature through appeals from business entities that have long received political contributions from the Mouse, like the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Florida. 

Tort reform and the rewriting of data privacy bills to only impact the tech giants, like Google and Meta, are examples she gave as to legislation that directly benefits Disney. “There's a public facing feud, sure. But behind the scenes, Disney's doing just fine,” she said.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District Fire Department building is seen at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, the day after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill dissolving the theme park's special purpose district. It was created by state law in May 1967 to give the Walt Disney Company governmental control over the land in and around its central Florida theme parks. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

For now, the Disney fight benefits DeSantis politically

There’s less disagreement on the opinion that DeSantis is driving this battle. Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said the primary motivator behind the conflict is for DeSantis to court Republican primary voters. 

According to recent polling, a majority of Republican voters view Disney as too liberal, suggesting it’s a political plus within his party to publicly fight with the entertainment giant. Jewett thinks that fact will keep DeSantis from taking any steps to smooth the situation over and, in fact, he will continue to escalate it. “As long as attacking Disney helps him in, he's going to keep doing it,” he said.

But Fine said Disney is intentionally upping the ante on behalf of the Democratic establishment to hurt DeSantis’ presidential prospects. 

“This is about much more than Disney's business interests,” Fine said. “I think Disney has chosen to be a surrogate for the Democratic Party because their lawsuit is baseless. And these comments by Bob Iger are so beyond the pale that the only conclusion I can make is either they're stupid, insane, or political.”

The war could hurt DeSantis’ presidential prospects if he runs and becomes the GOP nominee, according to polling. Few nationally are invested in DeSantis vs. Disney, and the company still holds above 50% favorability. 

Stipanovich said the governor has extracted all he can out of the situation politically, and leaning into it further will just hurt him with independent voters. “What does the soccer mom in the suburbs of Minneapolis think about Ron DeSantis fighting with Disney and Mickey Mouse? It makes him look bad,” he said.

The implications of the conflict for 2024 include whether DeSantis is a serious player for the long haul in politics or a right-wing flash in the pan, Stipanovich said. “Mickey Mouse is immortal, DeSantis is not,” he added. “When DeSantis leaves the stage, everyone – not just Disney – will breathe a great sigh of relief to the end of this jihad against Disney and will be glad to put it behind them.”

Jewett said he expects the same things that put Disney politically on top will help put them back there in short order: “There'll be a lot of Republicans that, over time, will certainly be willing to listen to Disney again and give them a seat at the table and give a lot of deference to their opinions.”

And Eskamani sees no reason why a return to the status quo won’t happen when Disney starts cutting checks for Florida politicians again. 

One thing she said she expects to stay will be a culture of companies being hesitant to make statements that could trigger prominent Republicans in the state, creating the chilling effect that DeSantis wanted in the first place. 

“I think the only difference is that, on social issues, there's a deafening silence from corporate America,” she said.

Contact Tristan Wood at twood@cityandstatefl.com and follow him on Twitter: @TristanDWood

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