Years of fruitful relations between Disney, Florida at risk

Posted at 6:50 AM, Apr 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-21 06:50:33-04

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP MODIFIED) — The idea was presented to Florida lawmakers in a movie house outside Orlando 55 years ago, with Walt Disney, who had died less than two months earlier, helping make the pitch from the screen: Let Disney form its own government and in exchange it would create a futuristic city of tomorrow.

That city never materialized, but Walt Disney World became an economic juggernaut with four theme parks and two dozen hotels, while its government retained unprecedented powers in deciding what and how to build, issuing bonds and holding the ability to build its own nuclear plant if it wanted.

Now, five decades later, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is asking lawmakers to end Disney’s government in a move that jeopardizes the symbiotic relationship between the state and company. The high-profile attack by a politician from a GOP party that has historically championed its ties to business follows the company’s opposition to what critics have dubbed the “ Don’t Say Gay ” law barring instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.

Republican Rep. Randy Fine, sponsor of the bill to scrap the Reedy Creek Improvement District, as the Disney government entity is known, said it is time for a change.

“You kick the hornet’s nest, things come up. And I will say this: You got me on one thing — this bill does target one company. It targets the Walt Disney Co.,” Fine said. “You want to know why? Because they are the only company in the state that has ever been granted the right to govern themselves.”

In an email fundraising pitch Wednesday, DeSantis, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024, put it this way:

“Disney has gotten away with special deals from the state of Florida for way too long. It took a look under the hood to see what Disney has become to truly understand their inappropriate influence,” the governor’s email said.

“If Disney wants to pick a fight, they chose the wrong guy,” the email added.

Disney, based in Burbank, California, had more than $67 billion in revenue in 2021 and has declined comment on the Florida legislation, which passed the state Senate on Wednesday and is being considered by the House in a special session of the Republican-dominated Legislature. The effective date of the measure would be June 2023, leaving time to develop a compromise short of completely abolishing the district.