March 5. 2024. 2:01

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Walt Disney vs Ron DeSantis: who really won the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ dust-up?

At the height of the “Don’t Say Gay” battle between Walt Disney and Ron DeSantis last year, the Florida governor pledged to put an end to one of the company’s most coveted perks: the ability to self-govern the area around its theme parks as a special district that has existed for 55 years.

Last Monday, DeSantis signed a law that he claimed brought Disney’s “corporate kingdom” in Florida to an end, but the legislation fell far short of his original goal. Instead of dissolving the district as DeSantis had pledged, its name was changed and Disney was stripped of some rights, including the ability to build a nuclear power plant and an airport, which the company did not intend to use. Otherwise, according to the law, the district “is not dissolved ... but continues in full force and effect under its new name”.

However, DeSantis did secure a significant victory that threatens to complicate Disney’s ability to run the Florida park with the freedom it has enjoyed in the past. He now has the power to appoint all five members of the district’s board of directors, disappointing Disney allies in the state legislature who had hoped he would only gain two seats.

His appointments, announced this week, signal that he intends to keep putting pressure on Disney. Instead of candidates with backgrounds in economic development or tourism, he packed the board with political allies. Two of them are leading lights in the culture wars that have helped DeSantis build a national profile ahead of a presumed run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

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Among them is Bridget Ziegler, co-founder of the conservative Moms for Liberty group and a champion of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by its critics, which was at the heart of the fight with Disney. The legislation limits discussions of LGBT+ issues in Florida schools. Another is Ron Peri, a former tech executive who runs The Gathering USA, an evangelical Christian ministry. The other three are attorneys and DeSantis allies.

“The legislation didn’t really end Disney’s special advantages,” said Richard Foglesong, a historian and author of Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando. “But the composition of the board poses a threat to Disney’s business interests.”

Foglesong added the new board members “are culture war icons and Republican political contributors and I think that will create problems for Disney down the line”.

He likened the move to DeSantis’s recent takeover of the New College of Florida, a small liberal arts institution. After DeSantis appointed six conservative allies to the 13-member board in January, the school’s president was forced out. This week the board voted to abolish diversity, equity and inclusion programmes, drawing protests from some students. “The worst that could happen [for Disney] is for DeSantis to do with the board what he did for New College,” Foglesong said.

Disney declined to comment for this story. In a statement last month, the company said it “works under a number of different models and jurisdictions around the world, and ... we remain committed to providing the highest quality experience for the millions of guests who visit each year”.

Facing resistance in Florida is a new and unpleasant experience for Disney, which has picked its own board members and enjoyed the support of what has been a famously business-friendly Republican Party in the state for half a century.

The special district, known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District until this week, was created in 1967 by the Florida legislature after Walt and Roy Disney presented their plan to build a futuristic city and theme park to state officials. The brothers hoped to avoid the oversight that they had experienced from city officials in Anaheim, California, as they built Disneyland.

Disney essentially gained the power to run its own government, an arrangement that Florida politicians seemed happy with as long as its parks continued to bring in tourism dollars. The company reinforced its power with a formidable lobbying operation.

But DeSantis broke with his party’s allegiance to Disney, the state’s largest private employer, after former chief executive Bob Chapek criticised the state’s education bill. The governor signed a hastily-written law last summer to dissolve the district, which threatened to shift the cost of providing essential services from Disney to local taxpayers – and potentially transfer a $1 billion debt load to the state.

The legislation passed last month in Florida avoided those problems by keeping its tax collection, debt and other arrangements as they were.

Even if the law did not reach as far as he had planned, DeSantis said he had ended Disney’s “unaccountable corporate kingdom”. He vowed to end the company’s exemption from state reviews and approvals within the 40 square mile (104sq km) area, which is now called the Central Florida Tourism Oversight district.

He also kept up his attacks on what he has labelled “woke” Disney, saying the state’s measures were necessary because the company has a “goal to inject sexuality into programmes for young kids”.

Justin Marlowe, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, said the critical issue for Disney is whether the new board will pursue “an agenda consistent with” DeSantis’s position on the company.

While the board, whose members serve four-year terms, will not have authority over Disney’s operation of its parks, they could use their approval power for crucial infrastructure projects as leverage over the company, he said.

“The power to exercise oversight for planning and zoning ... has been a major source of leverage that Disney has had for a long time,” Marlowe said. “For that to be in question means everything about Disney’s operations comes into question... [The new board] could stand back and veto any plans that Disney management puts on the table.”

He noted Florida Republicans had long tended to be among the most pro-business politicians in the US, but this may no longer be the case – at least when it comes to Disney. “It’s such a strange and unprecedented situation where one of the most economic development-friendly Republican parties in the country is pursuing what could be perceived as an anti- economic development agenda,” Marlowe added. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023