Politics

Ron DeSantis vs. the Mouse

“You don’t get ahead politically by going against Disney,” said a historian of the company’s legacy in Florida. “It’d be like attacking Mother Teresa.”

A Mickey Mouse hot air balloon in the sky in Mexico
Mario Armas/Getty Images

As the Florida Legislature was convening earlier this week to approve its controversial new congressional maps, Gov. Ron DeSantis suddenly announced the Legislature would be considering another move as well: punching Disney, one of the biggest power players in Tallahassee, in the face.

DeSantis and Disney have been feuding since late March, when the corporation, under pressure from its own employees, finally came out against the “don’t say gay” law, saying that its “goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts.”

Advertisement

After weeks of tension, with conservatives furious at this latest example of “woke capitalism” meddling in social policy, DeSantis escalated the fight during the special session. The Legislature would consider a bill that would dissolve any “independent special districts” established prior to Nov. 5, 1968. Among the handful of districts meeting this criteria is the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the self-governing authority effectively controlled by Walt Disney World. (Yes, Disney runs its own neighborhood.)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

If the district were dissolved, it might actually save Disney some money—but at the cost of not being able to manage its own streets, permitting, bond issuance, and so forth. It would remove a lot of certainty and predictability from the operation.

Both chambers of the Florida Legislature passed the bill this week, and it’s headed to DeSantis’ desk.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Since the feud began, DeSantis has been saying that he wanted to mark a new era in Florida politics where Disney can no longer “dictate policy” in the state. But is the governor, who harbors well-known national ambitions, really sticking it to one of the most powerful corporations in the state? Or is he creating the talking point that he’s the governor who stuck it to one of the most powerful corporations in his state?

Disney’s reputation as omnipotent in Tallahassee is almost the stuff of folklore.

It brings billions of dollars to the state and employs tens of thousands of people. It donates millions to Florida politicians, with the bulk of it going to the Republicans who control Florida and Republican-leaning groups. It plays a leading role in state business lobbies, like Associated Industries of Florida, and rarely has much trouble securing new tax breaks. It further wields its influence, and spends its money, to beat back would-be competitors to its resort empire. A couple of the political operatives I first wanted to speak with about Disney’s influence had to decline because Disney was a client. The Mouse is everywhere.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Those who’ve watched Disney throw around its weight for decades, then, were stunned to see Republicans go forward with the bill to dissolve Reedy Creek.

“I’m still shocked that this is occurring,” Richard Foglesong, a professor emeritus of political science at Rollins College who quite literally wrote the book about the formation of Reedy Creek and Disney’s political influence in the area, told me Thursday.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“There was a saying, locally, at the county level, in Orange County, that you don’t get ahead politically by going against Disney,” he said. “It’d be like attacking Mother Teresa.”

Scott Randolph served in the state House before his current gig as the Orange County tax collector. This is also a new one to him.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“There’d be three things you’d fear in Tallahassee,” he told me Wednesday. “Sugar, Florida Power & Light, and Disney. Those were the three entities you feared in Tallahassee, and you always sort of tiptoed around.”

DeSantis has taken Disney’s money—$50,000 of it in the 2020 cycle, not counting other donations made to the state party—and he’s done his share of favors for the company in return, even those he doesn’t like to admit.

Advertisement
Advertisement

He doesn’t need Disney now, though. He’s in good shape for his reelection, and the donations and national Republican acclaim he gets for Taking On Disney will more than make up what he’s lost.

Theoretically, taking on Disney might be a harder sell for rank-and-file Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee, though. Foglesong said he “can’t help but wonder if some of them have reservations about what they’re doing.”

Advertisement

“Briefly stated,” he added, “they seem to be more afraid of DeSantis than they do of losing Disney contributions. … This politics of culture war, of anti-wokeness, appeals to a base that Republican legislators are afraid to confront.”

State Sen. Linda Stewart, a Democrat representing a chunk of Orange County where many Disney employees reside, says “my way or the highway” is just DeSantis’ “M.O.” in his dealings with Republicans in the Legislature.

“ ‘I want this, you better give it to me,’ ” she said, riffing on DeSantis’ style. “ ‘I want this, do you want your appropriations that’s in the budget that I haven’t approved yet? OK then, if you want it, you better vote yes. Do you want the bills you championed in the legislative session and I haven’t signed them yet? You want them vetoed, then OK, vote against me, and you’ll see what happens.’ ” I was speaking with Stewart on Wednesday, after she’d voted against the bill to dissolve Reedy Creek. She said she was worried about the fate of her own bills now.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The extent to which DeSantis and the Republicans he’s dragged along with him are actually cutting off Disney at the knees, though, is very much a matter of debate. Specifically, there’s real doubt about whether Reedy Creek, which the bill specifies would be dissolved on June 1, 2023, will actually be dissolved.

Were this dissolution to go into effect, it would be a total pain for everyone involved. Reedy Creek’s debts and obligations, previously paid almost entirely by Disney, would be transferred mostly to Orange County.

Randolph said nobody knows exactly how much debt Reedy Creek has, though he’s heard figures like $1 billion and $2 billion tossed around. He knows Reedy Creek’s annual debt payments, though, are $58 million a year.

Advertisement

“That all gets turned over to Orange County, right?” he said. “And then Orange County has now got to operate a wastewater treatment facility, they have to operate firefighting stations, they have to maintain roads, and they have to do all of that with zero additional revenue.” The $163 million a year that Disney pays to Reedy Creek for its operation will just disappear, and the operation becomes Orange County’s problem.

“I don’t know how they absorb that without raising taxes,” he said.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Some Republicans, Stewart said of her colleagues, were noting that Orange County would also be absorbing the assets, not just the debts. But it’s not like they’re particularly liquid.

“I don’t think the county really wants the Dumbo ride or anything,” she said. “What are they going to do with it? We just don’t know enough about it to make this vote.”

Advertisement

Stewart, and several others I spoke with, suspect Disney and the government will reach some sort of face-saving settlement before the dissolution would go into effect. Disney could sue, citing state law that any dissolution of a special district needs to be voted on by the district’s residents, who (in the case of Reedy Creek) would absolutely not vote to dissolve. Or they could argue that the law was a pure act of retribution against political speech, which no one’s really denying. Then, instead of a protracted court battle that Republicans might not really want to win anyway, there’s a negotiation.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“There will be talks that happen over the summer,” Stewart said. “Because Disney does not want to dissolve, they have enough votes not to dissolve, and there might be some other save-face stuff that may happen with the governor. Maybe take one or two of the responsibilities from the special district.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

And maybe, too, Disney would lift the donation pause it put in place when speaking out against the “don’t say gay” law. There is, after all, a much simpler theory for why Republicans are suddenly shaking down Disney than their morals simply not allowing corporate America to get away with such “wokeness”: They want to get the spigot running again.

Even if, a year from now, this whole episode ends in a superficial touch-up of Reedy Creek’s charter, DeSantis will have already gotten what he wanted. He’ll have secured the talking point that he had the guts to take on one of his state’s most powerful corporations when it stuck its paws where they didn’t belong. Ignore the details of how it worked out. What will matter is that he picked a high-profile cultural fight.

“You don’t really have to ‘win’ to win,” Foglesong said of the culture wars. “You don’t really have to pass a law that changes anything. … You just have to give your supporters a feel-good moment by being vengeful and stirring resentment towards an enemy. That’s enough. You’ve won right there.”

For more on the battle between Disney and Governor DeSantis over LGBTQ rights, listen to this recent episode of What Next.

Advertisement