MIAMI: Florida’s governor seized control of Walt Disney World’s self-governing district on Monday (Feb 27), hailing the end of the “corporate kingdom” as he effectively punished the entertainment giant over its “woke” opposition to his political agenda.
The bill allows Republican Ron DeSantis to appoint his own board to oversee the services provided in the theme park by Disney, which attracted the governor’s ire last year after it criticized a law banning school lessons on sexual orientation.
“Today the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” said DeSantis, who is widely expected to join the race for the White House in 2024, as he signed the bill.
“There’s a new sheriff in town, and accountability will be the order of the day.”
The move is seen as part of a broader effort by DeSantis to reform institutions which he believes have been hijacked by “woke” progressive activists and addresses criticism that the arrangement gave Disney an unfair advantage over rivals.
But critics have voiced fears that the arrangement will make Disney beholden to DeSantis and much less likely to feel able to speak out against his policies.
Walt Disney World, near Orlando, is the largest theme park in the world and has been governed since it opened in the 1970s by the Reedy Creek Improvement District, an independent authority with broad local management autonomy that exempted it from most state regulations.
The 101 sq km park operated largely unnoticed by the state government until it opposed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law enacted last year, which bars instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.
“We want our kids to be kids, we want them to be able to enjoy entertainment, school, without having an agenda imposed upon them,” said DeSantis, who has labelled Disney a “woke corporation” in the past.
Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature passed a law that would have dissolved Reedy Creek as of Jun 1 – but scaled back its plan from dissolution to reform after experts warned the district’s US$2 billion debts could be pushed on to local taxpayers.
The new law leaves Reedy Creek and its debt obligations intact, changes its name to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and subjects it to closer oversight by the government in Tallahassee.
Reedy Creek was independent, but its board was elected by landowners, and Disney owns two-thirds of the district.
Its five members are to be replaced Monday by DeSantis allies, including a prolific Republican donor who gave US$50,000 to the governor’s reelection, a co-founder of the conservative Moms for Liberty group and the wife of the Florida Republican Party’s chairman.
“Allowing a corporation to control its own government is bad policy, especially when the corporation makes decisions that impact an entire region,” DeSantis said in a written statement.
“This legislation ends Disney’s self-governing status, makes Disney live under the same laws as everybody else, and ensures that Disney pays its debts and fair share of taxes.”
Democratic state congresswoman Anna Eskamani, who represents the area around Walt Disney World, pointed to what she called the “absolutely wild” scenario of a capitalist like DeSantis celebrating the government takeover of a private board.
“Disney still maintains the same tax breaks but their First Amendment rights have been suppressed,” she said in a statement.
“And it sends a message to any private individual or company that if you don’t purport to (want) what the governor wants, then you’ll be punished.”
Disney, which employs more than 75,000 people in Florida, has said it will not fight the reforms.