Disney World in Orlando, Florida is living the corporate dream: pay less tax. But that happy ending was cut short by Ron DeSantis, the Republican Governor of Florida, who signed a bill to strip the tourist attraction of its “special independent district” status.
The decision comes after weeks of public disputes between DeSantis and the multinational entertainment company over the latter’s criticism of Florida’s Parents’ Right to Education Act. This legislation has been dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay” law, precisely because that is its intent: it prohibits any classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity until students are at least nine years old. The subject can be broached among older pupils, but only when it is considered “appropriate for their age or development”. Parents are also encouraged to report teachers who break the rules.
Florida’s decision to revoke Disney’s special status also affects Orange and Osceola counties, where Disney World is located, which will inherit the theme park district’s debts. Until now, Disney World in Orlando operated as a national government. The company has almost completely controlled the area since 1967, when the state created a special tax district called the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Disney bought the land in the early 1960s, but the park didn’t open until 1971.
The new rule goes into effect July 1, but its sweeping changes won’t go into effect until June 1, 2013. When that happens, Disney will no longer have sole control of the territory. Until now, it was responsible for the construction and maintenance of infrastructure and the provision of municipal services such as electricity and water. It also manages police departments and other emergency services such as ambulances and firefighters. Disney isn’t the only company with these special privileges in Florida: Daytona International Speedway and The Villages, a famous retirement community, also have similar terms.
The 1967 decision to create the Reedy Creek Improvement District was not only intended to provide self-reliance and encourage the development of new businesses, it was also intended to save the then rural and underdeveloped counties of Orange and Osceola from pay for new infrastructure and new services. Now that the district is on the verge of being dissolved, tax experts estimate that local governments will inherit around $1 billion in debt, while landowners in the area could face increases of taxes of up to 20%.
As for Disney, it will now have to ask the authorities for permission to reform or expand Disney World. The company – which has yet to respond to DeSantis’ attack – employs about 80,000 workers in Florida, making it the state’s largest employer. It also dominates Central Florida’s tourism industry, with an annual economic impact of approximately $75 billion.
But the governor of Florida – who is expected to be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2024 – has no qualms about taking on the entertainment giant. In a campaign fundraising email on Wednesday, he wrote, “If Disney wants to fight, they picked the wrong guy,” adding, “I won’t allow a woke society based in [Burbank] California to lead our state.
The key word in that statement is “woke,” a term that has taken on particular prominence in the so-called culture wars in the United States. Ahead of the midterm elections in November, Republicans are using the word to promote the idea that the left only cares about social issues such as transgender rights and critical race theory, not the real issues of the people.
The row between Disney and DeSantis, who leads the polls in the gubernatorial race and has already raised more than $100 million for the re-election campaign, escalated in early March, when Disney CEO Bob Chapek, spoke out against “Don’t Say Gay”. law following pressure from the company’s workers. By then, more than 150 companies had signed a letter opposing the law.
Chapek explained that he called DeSantis to express his “disappointment and concern” about the law arguing “that it could be used to unfairly target gay, lesbian, non-binary and transgender children and families.” “The Governor heard our concerns and agreed to meet with me and the LGBTQ+ members of our senior team in Florida to discuss ways to address them,” Chapek added.
If the meeting took place, it doesn’t seem to have had much effect. Last Monday, DeSantis asked the Florida legislature to revoke Disney privileges. The next day, the Senate voted 23 to 16 in favor of the bill. On Wednesday, it passed the State House in a 70-38 vote. And on Friday, the governor signed the bill surrounded by children and people holding signs with the message “Stop waking up.”
Those same Florida lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill are actually old Disney bedfellows. In Tallahassee alone, the capital of Florida, Disney has 38 lobbyists on its payroll. Indeed, Disney has historically split its political campaign donations between the Republican and Democratic parties, but following the scandal, it announced it was suspending all donations.
It seems the days when Disney could play both sides are over. On the one hand, Disney is being criticized for not doing enough for LGBTQ+ rights, as shown by the recent controversy over the company’s decision to remove a gay kiss from the film. Light year – he later confirmed that he would be added back. And on the other hand, he was attacked for his decision to remove the 1946 film southern song from its streaming platform over its “problematic” portrayal of life on a cotton plantation, or to withdraw its “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” greetings before a fireworks display at Disney World for not being gender-specific. Chapek, CEO of Disney for a year, quickly realized that while it’s impossible to please everyone, it’s not impossible to upset everyone.