How Disney and DeSantis clashed over power and policy, and what it means for business and politics in Florida
The battle between Gov. DeSantis and Disney CEO Bob Chapek is a rare public display of big business and hard knuckle politics.
It was both a slow burn and a rapid firestorm that engulfed the Magic Kingdom in Florida politics and the national culture war.
Disney — an entertainment giant that’s almost a century old — has been drawn into a fight that Gov. Ron DeSantis has spearheaded against what he calls “woke corporations.”
It’s one of Florida’s largest employers with about 60,000 workers. Walt Disney World is the number one tourist attraction in the state — a huge contributor to bringing more than 100 million visitors to Florida. It also makes the Orlando International Airport the busiest in the state.
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The fortunes of Florida, its hospitality dominated economy and state government revenues driven by sales taxes, stepped through Disney World like a parade on Main Street.
For decades, it was conventional wisdom to think what’s good for Disney was good for Florida. And vice versa.
But that enchantment has tarnished under public pressure and political ambitions.
Gov. DeSantis and Disney CEO Bob Chapek have been battling over policy and power — with the state and the company colliding in a rare public display of big business and hard knuckle politics.
It has left Disney on the clock to figure out how it could continue running its theme parks in central Florida before it loses special regulatory treatment it has enjoyed since before the first shovel of central Florida swampland was overturned.
The company’s independent special taxing and government status expires June 1, 2023 — triggering a cascade of questions about who’s on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars of IOUs, paying for public services for Disney World, and when corporate speech crashes into conflict over culture.
"I believe in many ways it represents a form of public corruption using the powers of the state to punish a corporate actor," said former lobbyist and GOP Rep. David Jolly. He is now a political independent.
DeSantis led the charge to cancel independent special districts after Disney said it would work to repeal the Parental Rights in Education law, which critics call the "Don't Say Gay" bill.
Gov. DeSantis and supporters call that description “a blatant falsehood” as the governor’s press secretary wrote to WLRN in an email.
The bill does not include the word ‘gay.’ It bans classroom teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in grades kindergarten through third grade. It also bans teachers form discussing sexual orientation or gender identity "in a manner that is not age-appropriate" applying to any grade.
That’s the clause that critics have focused on — along with other provisions such as requiring schools to tell parents if their child receives mental, emotional or physical health services unless there is a risk of abuse. It also gives parents the ability to sue schools if they believe a school violated the law.
Disney broke its public silence over the bill within an hour of the governor signing it on March 28. The statement came almost three weeks after it announced it would be suspending all political contributions in Florida.
Statement from The Walt Disney Company on signing of Florida legislation: pic.twitter.com/UVI7Ko3aKS— Walt Disney Company (@WaltDisneyCo) March 28, 2022
"Disney spoke out with criticism," said Jolly. "Disney also said 'We're going to pause our political giving. We're going to stop handing out checks to legislators and to the governor.' And what happened when they did that? The governor said, 'I'm going to use my power to come down on you and to situate your tax status in the state of Florida differently, because you spoke out against me and because you said you were going to stop giving me campaign money.' "
I do believe it's public corruption, probably not in a true legal sense of the word that the prosecutors could bring a case. But I do think that's the biggest danger.David Jolly, Former GOP Rep.
The power play between Disney and Gov. DeSantis has laid bare the usually diplomatic and cozy relationship between business and politics.
"I think what we are observing — and this is not just Disney, but a lot of large corporations — that the CEOs tend to be at the mercy of some vocal people who are very aggressive. And I think that social media has given even more power to this group," said University of Chicago finance professor Luigi Zingales, who has written about government and business in his book Capitalism for the People.
"CEOs are really trying to pacify these groups rather than trying to act necessarily interests of shareholders or in the interests of society at large."Luigi Zingales, University of Chicago Professor
Disney was working behind the scenes in Tallahassee for weeks, trying to get lawmakers to change the bill.
The same day the bill passed the Florida House, former Disney CEO Robert Iger pulled the company into the public debate. On Feb. 24 he quote tweeted President Biden’s criticism of the Florida bill, adding "if passed, this bill will put vulnerable, young LGBTQ people in jeopardy."
On March 6, the great niece of Walt Disney added to the social media pressure with a Twitter thread of 14 tweets going after Disney’s political contributions to Florida legislators behind the bill. One tweet read "In Florida, being pro-business means to let corporations regularly run rough shod over people, over the environment, over everything. This has been true since Disney World opened."
Abigail Disney's final message said "I am deeply angered by Disney thinking it can look the other way for this hateful ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill."
A day later, Disney employees received a memo from CEO Bob Chapek about why the company had remained silent on the bill. Chapek described the company’s support of LGBTQ-plus employees as "unequivocal." As to why the company hadn’t issued a statement about the Florida bill, Chapek essentially told employees to stay tuned.
Two days later on March 8, the Florida Senate held its final vote on the bill. Despite some behind the scenes discussions, Disney had not made a public statement about it. The bill was now on its way to the governor's desk.
A Long and Close Relationship
If it weren't for an off-handed comment in the mid-1960s, Disney may have not come to Florida. Walt Disney and company executives were ready to announce where the new theme park would be built. The night before the contracts were to be signed, Disney overheard a local leader say, "I don't know, but I think someone would be a fool to build an amusement park and not serve beer or liquor."
Disney walked out taking all the Disney executives with him. And he ordered the company plane to be ready the next morning to go back to California.
That's how St. Louis lost Walt Disney World, according to Richard Foglesong, author of Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando.
Walt Disney died in 1966, but when Florida lawmakers agreed to create the independent special district named Reedy Creek, it was such an important part of Disney's strategy that Walt's brother, Roy, joined Gov. Claude Kirk at the governor's mansion for the bill signing.
"I want to express our sincere thanks to the people of Florida, to your legislature and to your governor for providing us with this legal foundation upon which to bring this project into reality," Disney said.
Disney World has grown into 47 square miles, four theme parks, two water parks, hotels, restaurants and shopping. It is the engine fueling a $75 billion economic impact, generating billions in state tax revenue and a juggernaut of marketing Florida to a global audience.
The fate of its special taxing and regulatory status is in jeopardy.
"They get by without a private government at Anaheim, California (at Disneyland)," Folgesong said. "So that suggests it's possible to get by without it. It was especially important having those powers when they built the park. Maybe it's less important now when it's just a question of adding to the park."
"I think that it's funny when the governor says, 'Oh, now we're going to treat them normally.' So he recognizes that Disney had a number of favorites," Zingales said. "If all the tension generated by this 'woke capitalism' is to strip all businesses of all their privileges, I think it's a good outcome."