Ron DeSantis wants Disney’s ‘special privileges’ to end as GOP weighs repeal of company’s governing agreement

Legislators consider revoking a decades-old development district for Walt Disney World, putting it into county control

Alex Woodward
New York
Friday 01 April 2022 15:46 BST
Florida official claims Disney 'bullying' Republicans over 'Don't Say Gay' bill

Republican legislators in Florida are reportedly mulling whether to repeal a decades-old arrangement with the Walt Disney Company that effectively allows Disney to regulate the district on which its parks and properties operate.

The move comes as Republican officials and Governor Ron DeSantis and his administration condemn the company – the state’s largest private employer and a political heavyweight that has donated tens of thousands of dollars to their campaigns – over its opposition to what opponents have called the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Florida state Rep Spencer Roach announced on Twitter that state legislators met at least twice to discuss potentially changing municipal government agreements affecting Walt Disney World in retaliation for what he called the company’s “woke ideology.”

“Yesterday was the second meeting in a week with fellow legislators to discuss a repeal of the 1967 Reedy Creek Improvement Act, which allows Disney to act as its own government,” he wrote on 30 March. “If Disney wants to embrace ‘woke’ ideology, it seems fitting that they should be regulated by Orange County.”

Governor DeSantis said repealing the act would not necessarily be in retaliation for Disney’s statements but as part of a broader effort to strip the company of what he called “special privileges.”

“I would not say that that’d be retaliatory,” he said during a press conference on 31 March. “There are certain entities that have exerted a lot of influence through corporate means to generate special privileges in the law … I don’t think we should have special privileges in the law at all.”

He pointed to legislation he signed into law last year that limits how social media platforms and web services can remove users, including a ban on suspending posts from political figures. It also included a provision that makes an exception for “a company that owns and operates a theme park or entertainment complex” – such as Disney.

Governor DeSantis said that an “11th hour” provision added by state legislators “was meant solely to protect Disney, and I opposed that when it happened.”

“I think they’re used to having their way and they’re not used to having people that will stand in their way and say, ‘Actually, the state of Florida is going to be governed by the best interest of the people in Florida,’” he said. “We’re certainly not going to bend a knee to woke executives in California. That is not the way the state’s going to be run.”

The creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District followed negotiations between Disney leadership and Florida legislators for a community development district encompassing the Lake Buena Vista parcel where Disney operated.

The district oversees the area’s land use and public services, including water, sanitation, emergency medical and fire protection, as well as maintained of roads and bridges.

If the district is revoked, Disney properties could be brought under the authority of county government under the state.

For weeks, opponents of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill – signed into law this week – demanded that the company leverage its influence and condemn the measure, prompting company leadership to publicly denounce the legislation and freeze political spending in the state.

After CEO Bob Chapek publicly rebuked the legislation earlier this month, Governor DeSantis and members of his administration lambasted the company, igniting a feud that elevated to Republican threats to punish its operations in the state.

In a statement this week, Disney said the bill “should never have been passed and should never been signed into law.”

“Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down by the courts, and we remain committed to the supporting the national and state organisations working to achieve that,” the company said.

The “Parental Rights in Education” Act – named “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” by its opponents – broadly prohibits “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade “or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” in other grades.

On 31 March, a group of LGBT+ advocates, Florida students and families sued the governor and state education officials to block its implementation, citing violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as federal provisions against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity under Tile IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

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