DeSantis signs bill to give him more control of Disney’s special district
Appearing at the doorstep of Walt Disney World, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Monday that gives him new power over Disney, effectively punishing the entertainment giant for speaking out against the Republican’s political agenda.
The new law amounts to a state takeover of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the government body that has given Disney unique powers in Central Florida for more than half a century. It allows the governor to replace the district’s existing board – mostly people with ties to Disney – with a five-member body that he hand-picks.
“Today, the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” DeSantis said Monday at a Reedy Creek fire station in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. “There’s a new sheriff in town and accountability will be the order of the day.”
DeSantis announced his appointments to the reconstructed board, including Martin Garcia, a Tampa lawyer and prolific Republican donor whose private investment firm contributed $50,000 to DeSantis’ reelection, and Bridget Ziegler, a Sarasota County School Board member who was a co-founder of the conservative organization Moms for Liberty and the wife of Christian Ziegler, the new chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
The new board is scheduled to meet next week, DeSantis said, “so buckle up.”
In a statement to CNN after the bill passed the state legislature earlier this month, Jeff Vahle, the president of Walt Disney World Resort, said the company was “ready to work within this new framework, and we will continue to innovate, inspire and bring joy to the millions of guests who come to Florida to visit Walt Disney World each year.”
The move against Disney comes nearly a year after the company spoke out against a Florida bill – which DeSantis later signed into law – to restrict certain classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity. In March of last year, as outrage against the legislation spread nationwide, Disney released a statement vowing to help get the law repealed or struck down by the courts and saying the company was “dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Florida and across the country.”
DeSantis responded by calling on lawmakers to strip Disney of its special governing power, which they did last year, ending a longstanding arrangement that allowed the company to build its sprawling, iconic Orlando-area theme parks into an international tourist destination and one of the state’s most critical economic engines.
Lawmakers, though, changed course amid concerns a disruption of Reedy Creek’s debt and contracts violated the state law that created the special tax district. Instead, DeSantis appointees will be in charge of the district’s long-standing powers to tax, build and borrow money for projects and services around Disney’s vast footprint in Orange and Osceola counties. It also renames Reedy Creek as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, restricts its use of eminent domain and removes never-used powers that could have allowed Disney to build its own airport or a nuclear plant.
The new future for Reedy Creek passed the GOP-led state legislature earlier this month in a special session.
“Disney came out against something that was really just about protecting young kids, and making sure that students are able to go to school learning to read, write, add, subtract, and not having a teacher tell them that they can change their gender,” DeSantis said Monday. “And I think most parents agree with that. But you know, that was only a mild annoyance. I think that what we came to realize after that dust settled on that was you clearly had a movement within the corporation itself.”
The saga with Disney has been central to the narrative around DeSantis’ ascent to the top of potential 2024 Republican presidential contenders, and a demonstration of the lengths the Republican has gone to push his “war on wokeness.” In taking on Disney, DeSantis stunned one of the state’s largest and most influential employers. With an army of lobbyists and millions in past campaign donations to Republican lawmakers, it often wielded much influence in Florida’s halls of legislative power.
While the move was celebrated by conservative media, several of DeSantis’ would-be GOP rivals have been critical. Former Vice President Mike Pence said the conflict with Disney was “beyond the scope of what I as a conservative, limited government Republican would be prepared to do.” And New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said penalizing businesses for political speech set “the worst precedent in the world.”
DeSantis has shrugged off such criticism. Monday’s bill signing event turned into a lengthy takedown of Disney that extended beyond its foray in Florida’s legislative activity. DeSantis featured speakers who assailed the company’s vaccine and mask policies, its treatment of firefighters and its more recent entertainment offerings.