Disney faces payback for criticizing Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

State governor Ron DeSantis has passed legislation that will strip the Orlando theme park’s status as an ‘independent special district’

Disney workers protest against CEO Bob Chapek's handing over Florida's ‘Don't Say Gay’ law.
Disney workers protest against CEO Bob Chapek's handing over Florida's ‘Don't Say Gay’ law.Irfan Khan (Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag)

Disney World in Orlando, Florida has been living the corporate dream: to pay less in taxes. But this happy ending has been cut short by Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, who has signed a bill to strip the tourist attraction of its status as an “independent special district.”

The decision comes after weeks of public disputes between DeSantis and the entertainment multinational over the latter’s criticism of Florida’s Parents’ Right to Education Act. This legislation has been dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, precisely because that is what it intends: it prohibits class discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity until students are at least nine years old. The topic can be addressed among older students, but only when it is considered to be “age or developmentally appropriate” for them. Parents are also encouraged to report teachers who do not follow the rules.

Florida’s decision to revoke Disney’s special status also affects the counties of Orange and Osceola, where Disney World is located, which will inherit the debts of the theme park district. Until now, Disney World in Orlando has operated like a country government. The company has had almost total control over the area since 1967, when the state created a special taxing district called Reedy Creek Improvement District. Disney purchased the land in the early 1960s, but the park did not open until 1971.

The new rule takes effect on July 1, but its sweeping changes won’t come into force until June 1, 2013. When that happens, Disney will no longer have sole control over the land. Up until now, it has been in charge of building and maintaining infrastructure and providing municipal services such as electricity and water. It also manages policing and other emergency services such as ambulances and firefighters. Disney is not the only company with these special privileges in Florida: the Daytona International Speedway and The Villages, a famous retirement community, also have similar conditions.

The 1967 decision to create the Reedy Creek Improvement District was not solely aimed at providing autonomy and encouraging new business development, it was also intended to spare the then rural and underdeveloped counties of Orange and Osceola from paying for new infrastructure and services. Now that the district is set to be dissolved, tax experts estimate that local governments will inherit a debt of around $1 billion, while property owners in the area may face tax hikes of up to 20%.

As far as Disney is concerned, it will now have to ask authorities for permission to reform or expand Disney World. The company – which has not yet responded to the DeSantis’ attack – employs about 80,000 workers in Florida, making it the largest employer in the state. It also dominates the Central Florida tourism industry, with an annual economic impact of around $75 billion.

But the Florida governor – who is tipped to be the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential candidate – has no qualms about taking on the entertainment giant. In a campaign fundraising email on Wednesday, he wrote: “If Disney wants to pick a fight, they chose the wrong guy,” adding, “I will not allow a woke corporation based in [Burbank] California to run our state.”

The keyword in this statement is “woke,” a term that has taken on special importance in the so-called culture wars in the United States. Ahead of the midterm elections in November, Republicans are using the word to promote the idea that the left is only concerned with social issues such as transgender rights and critical race theory, and not the real problems of the people.

The conflict between Disney and DeSantis, who is leading the polls in the gubernatorial race and has already raised more than $100 million for the reelection campaign, intensified in early March, when Disney CEO Bob Chapek spoke out against the “Don’t Say Gay” law following pressure from company workers. By that point, more than 150 companies had signed a letter opposing the act.

Chapek explained that he had called DeSantis to express his “disappointment and concern” about the law arguing “it could be used to unfairly target gay lesbian, nonbinary and transgender kids and families.” “The governor heard our concerns and agreed to meet with me and LGBTQ+ members of our senior team in Florida to discuss the ways to address them,” Chapek added.

If the meeting took place, it doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect. Last Monday, DeSantis asked the Florida Legislature to revoke Disney’s privileges. The next day, the Senate voted 23-16 in favor of the bill. On Wednesday, it passed in the state House in a 70-38 vote. And on Friday the governor signed the bill into law surrounded by children and people holding signs with the message “Stop woke.”

Those same Floridan lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill are actually old bedfellows of Disney. Just in Tallahassee, the capital of Florida, Disney has 38 lobbyists on its payroll. Indeed Disney has historically split its political campaign donations between the Republican and Democratic parties, but, following the scandal, it announced it was pausing all donations.

It seems that the time when Disney could play both sides is over. On the one hand, Disney is criticized for not doing enough for LGBTQ+ rights, as seen in the recent controversy over the company’s decision to cut out a same-sex kiss from the movie Lightyear – it later confirmed that it will be added back in. And on the other, it has come under attack for its decision to remove the 1946 movie Song of the South from its streaming platform over its “problematic” depiction of life on a cotton plantation, or to remove its “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” greeting before a firework show at Disney World for not being gender-inclusive. Chapek, who has been CEO of Disney for a year, has quickly learned that while it is impossible to please everyone, it is not impossible to upset everyone.

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