Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has instructed state legislators to consider repealing Disney World’s governing structure, a decades-old agreement with the state, escalating Republican retribution against the Walt Disney Company for its public opposition to what opponents have called the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
The governor expanded the scope of a special legislative session on the state’s redistricting plans to also consider the “termination of all special districts that were enacted in Florida prior to 1968,” he announced.
The creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District in 1967 followed negotiations between Disney leadership and Florida legislators for a community development district encompassing the Lake Buena Vista parcel where Disney operated.
It spans two counties and 25,000 acres for the six parks and resorts, and the district governance oversees the area’s land use and public services, including water, sanitation, emergency medical and fire protection, as well as maintenance of roads and bridges.
If the district is revoked, Disney properties could be brought under the authority of county government under the state.
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The “Parental Rights in Education Act” prohibits instruction of “sexual orientation or gender identity” from kindergarten through the third grade and any such discussion “that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” in other grades.
The broadly written law – the subject of a federal lawsuit claiming violations of federal antidiscrimination statutes – could freeze classroom speech involving LGBT+ people and issues, from civil rights history lessons to discussion of LGBT+ students, school staff and their families, according to opponents.
Following weeks of urging from LGBT+ advocates and employees, Disney CEO Bob Chapek announced his opposition to the bill and pledged to suspend his political donations in the state.
Campaign filings reported by The Independent revealed that Disney entities donated tens of thousands of dollars to Florida legislators who supported the law – including at least $50,000 to a political action committee supporting the governor’s re-election campaign.
In a memo on 11 March, Mr Chapek conceded that Disney had not done enough to oppose the bill and pledged to “combat similar legislation in other states.”
Governor DeSantis and members of his administration then lashed out at the company, igniting a feud that escalated to Republican threats to punish its operations in the state.
In a statement, Disney said the bill “should never have been passed and should never have been signed into law.”
“Our goal as a company is for this law to be appealed by the legislature or struck down by the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that,” the company said on 28 March, when the governor signed the bill into law.
Two days later, Florida state Rep Spencer Roach said a group of state legislators met at least twice to discuss potentially changing municipal government agreements affecting Disney 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 tweeted on 30 March. “If Disney wants to embrace ‘woke’ ideology, it seems fitting that they should be regulated by Orange County.”
On 19 April Republican state Rep. Randy Fine introduced House Bill 3C, the “Independent Special Districts” bill. A companion measure, Senate Bill 4C, was introduced in the state Senate.
“Disney is a guest in Florida,” Rep Fine said on Twitter. “Today, we remind them.”
The company is likely well prepared for a political battle in the state capitol, with dozens of lobbyists in Tallahassee, though it is unclear how Disney will fare if the governing structure under which its parks have operated for decades is absorbed by neighboring counties – or whether those counties and taxpayers living within them will pay for the services that Disney now controls.
Governor DeSantis also wants to revisit legislation he signed into law in 2021 that limits how social media platforms and web services can remove users, including a ban on suspending posts from political figures, in the wake of Donald Trump’s removal from Twitter. 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.
He claimed last month that the Disney clause was an “11th hour” addition meant to “solely protect” the company, “and I opposed that when it happened.”
His own administration, however, helped craft that Disney carve out in response to requests from the company, according to emails obtained by the Seeking Rents newsletter.
A federal judge overturned the law last June.