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DeSantis seeks to control Disney with state oversight powers

Mickey, Minnie and cast members join Walt Disney World executives in a ceremony marking the official opening of Tron Lightcycle / Run at the Magic Kingdom in early April.
Joe Burbank
/
AP
Mickey, Minnie and cast members join Walt Disney World executives in a ceremony marking the official opening of Tron Lightcycle / Run at the Magic Kingdom in early April.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida lawmakers ratcheted up pressure on Walt Disney World on Monday by announcing legislation that will use the regulatory powers of Florida government to exert unprecedented oversight on the park resort's rides and monorail.

Lawmakers will introduce a bill in coming weeks that would end an exemption for Disney parks when it comes to ride inspections by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, DeSantis said at a news conference near Disney World.

The agriculture agency is responsible for inspecting amusement rides in Florida, but an exception was carved out for the state's largest theme park operators, such as Disney and Universal Destinations & Experiences, which do their own safety inspections. Under the proposal, the exemption would end for rides in special governmental districts, which basically targets just Disney World.

Disney said in a statement on Monday that its inspectors have been leaders in the industry. Other experts note that Disney and other large theme park operators have an expertise examining sophisticated rides that state or local agencies may not have.

"Inspections for the kind of rides at Disney go well beyond county fairs," said Richard Foglesong, a Rollins College professor emeritus who wrote a definitive account of Disney World's governance in his book, "Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando."

"You need inspectors with the kind of expertise I think they have," he said of the inspectors who currently examine Disney rides.

DeSantis' announcement was the latest in a tit-for-tat between Disney and the governor that started last year when the entertainment giant publicly opposed the state's so-called "Don't Say Gay" legislation barring school instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. In retaliation, Florida lawmakers passed, and DeSantis signed, legislation reorganizing Disney World's company-controlled government, allowing the governor to appoint the five members of the Board of Supervisors. The board previously was controlled by Disney.

Last month, the new DeSantis-appointees claimed their Disney-controlled predecessors pulled a fast one by stripping the new board of most powers and giving Disney control over design and construction at the theme park resort before the new members could take their seats.

DeSantis on Monday said the agreement between Disney and previous supervisors was illegal, claiming it was self-dealing and proper advance notice wasn't given before the old board approved it. The governor also said that lawmakers had the authority to revoke it, and they would consider legislation to do so next week.

"They talked about a development agreement that would render everything we did null and void," DeSantis said. "Well, that's not going to work. That's not going to fly."

Disney said in its statement that the agreement was based on a comprehensive plan that state officials approved last summer.

The governor also suggested the new board should sell the district's utility in order to pay down the district's $1 billion debts and make sure Disney World never again has a mask mandate, as it did after closing and then reopening in the first year of the COVID-19 virus' spread.

In taking on Disney, DeSantis has advanced his reputation as a culture warrior willing to battle political opponents and wield the power of state government to accomplish political goals. It is a strategy he is likely to follow through his expected 2024 run for the White House.

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, DeSantis suggested Monday that the new board or lawmakers could take other actions with the Disney's 27,000 acres (10,926 hectares) in central Florida, such as building a state park, a competing theme park or a prison.

"I think the possibilities are endless," DeSantis said.

By needing to pass another bill on Disney's governance, DeSantis and lawmakers may be implicitly acknowledging that the agreement between the previous board and the company was valid, Foglesong said.

Moreover, it's unusual for a potential Republican presidential candidate to be going after a large corporation and attempting to regulate it more, like DeSantis is to Disney, he said.

"He's talking like Bernie, the socialist," said Foglesong, referring to U.S. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. "What Republican candidate for major office talks like this?"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
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