This story originally ran April 9. On Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he was expanding the Florida legislature’s special session on the state’s congressional map to include potential “termination of all special districts” established in Florida before 1968, including the Reedy Creek Improvement District that Disney controls.
Since Walt Disney decided that his second theme park would be in central Florida, there’s been an understanding between state lawmakers and the Disney corporation: Disney gets what it wants.
In the aftermath of Florida’s latest legislative session, that’s been called into question. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state’s Republican-dominated legislature passed the Parental Rights in Education bill (H.B. 1557), quickly dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.” The bill bars classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade or “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate” — which could extend to students beyond elementary school.
Disney, after unsuccessfully trying its usual behind-the-scenes maneuvering to amend the bill, spoke out publicly against it and announced it would pause all political donations in Florida. After the bill was signed, the company issued a statement saying it would aim to get “Don’t Say Gay” repealed or struck down in court.
DeSantis’ public reaction was swift: After Disney spoke out publicly in March, he railed against “the musing of woke corporations”; after Disney said it would try to repeal the bill, he voiced support for taking away the company’s “special privileges.”
Those special privileges are, in part, tied to the Reedy Creek Improvement Act, which allows Disney to effectively govern itself: The district controls everything from emergency services to utilities to financial instruments like bonds. DeSantis has said he’s “receptive” to a legislature repeal of that act when the next session comes around.
“Special privileges” also extend to the political power Disney has amassed in its 50 years operating in Florida. The company, through a combination of campaign donations, lobbying efforts, and working through groups like the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and chambers of commerce, can usually get bills passed or amended to suit its needs without ever testifying directly.
If the threats to revoke Disney’s “privileges” come to fruition, it would be new territory both for Disney and for Florida lawmakers.
The same lawmakers currently going after the company have, for years, accepted Disney’s donations and kept favorable conditions for the company — as the Orlando Sentinel reported, Disney gave to every sponsor and co-sponsor of the bill. (Disney did not respond to requests to comment for this article.)
The current situation leaves Disney “trying to slay the beast that they made,” said State Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat representing Orlando who has criticized the sway of corporate dollars in Florida politics. “They were giving to these Republicans who have a history of homophobic and transphobic stances. They gave without a second thought. Republicans also accepted those donations without a second thought.”
And that arrangement worked for both sides — until now. DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, told Grid that Disney’s statement pledging to do everything possible to repeal the law marks a turning point. “Disney is not the legislature,” she said. “They’re not the governor. Nobody elected them.”
The threats from GOP lawmakers also serve as a signal to other corporations, said Aubrey Jewett, a politics professor at the University of Central Florida.
“The thought is, if they’re willing to go after Disney, one of the most powerful and influential companies in the state, who wouldn’t they go after?” he said. “The warning is, ‘Don’t cross us. Don’t fight against things the governor and legislature want to do.’”
“Arguably the most powerful company in the state”
Disney’s footprint is big. The company’s Florida property spans 43 square miles, “twice the size of the island of Manhattan,” Walt Disney giddily proclaims, standing in front of a wall-size map of the land in a film shot in October 1966 explaining his ideas for “our enormous Florida project” of Disney World. It would feature not just a theme park but an entire city he named Epcot — the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
“There’s enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we could possibly imagine,” Disney says to the camera.
On that land, the Walt Disney Company quickly made itself synonymous with Florida. Over 10 million visitors came to Magic Kingdom, the first park to open, in its first year. The resort, now expanded to four parks and two water parks, welcomed an estimated 58 million people in 2018, making it the most-visited resort in the world.
“Disney became such an iconic presence that it transformed tourism from a small part of the Florida economy to a central part of the Florida economy,” Jewett said. The state used to primarily attract tourists to the coast, for the beaches. Disney brought them inland. Travel and tourism represented around 10 percent of the state’s GDP and 13 percent of jobs in 2019. In central Florida, that figure was 23 percent — almost 1 in every 4 jobs.
When Disney came to Florida and the Democrats were in charge, the company “‘thrived and did just fine,” Jewett said. “And they’ve adjusted and have done just as well under Republicans. The only thing that switched was the proportion they gave.”
After Jeb Bush won the governor’s race in 1998 and put the Republican Party in control of both the governor’s office and legislature, Disney continued giving to both parties but shifted from favoring Democrats in its donations to favoring Republicans.
“As a major corporate player, you’re going to try to gain access and influence,” Jewett said.
And Disney has influence in spades: In a 2014 journal article on interest groups in Florida, Jewett calls it “arguably the most powerful company in the state.”
In the past decade, Disney’s dollars flowing to Tallahassee have skyrocketed: The company spent a total of $2.1 million on state elections in 2010, according to reporting by Florida Trend, including donations to candidates, state parties, political committees and constitutional amendment campaigns. By 2018, when DeSantis was elected governor, that figure ballooned to $28.3 million on Florida state elections.
In 2020, Disney donated $4.8 million just to individual candidates in Florida, as well as $50,000 to DeSantis.
Last year, one of DeSantis’ priority bills would have made it illegal for social media sites to de-platform political candidates. The bill’s definition of a “social media platform” included the Disney+ streaming service — until Disney intervened just days before the end of the session and got a specific exemption for companies that “operate a theme park.” Although DeSantis called the 11th-hour carveout “ridiculous” at a recent news conference, emails first reported by former Orlando Sentinel reporter Jason Garcia in his corporate accountability newsletter, Seeking Rents, show that DeSantis’ office helped write it. (Pushaw said the governor didn’t want to “throw out good parts” of the Big Tech bill and emphasized that DeSantis opposes “carve-outs and handouts.”)
The law has since been struck down because, as a federal judge wrote, it was tailored to avoid burdening “favored Florida businesses.”
The company has finagled other loopholes, like a late addition to a 2008 bill that exempted Disney from legislation allowing employees to keep guns in their cars while at work.
Financially, Disney stands to receive a share of the $624 million corporate tax refund dollars that Florida is sending back to the state’s top earners, a refund signed into law by DeSantis in 2019. Only 1 percent of Florida companies pay any corporate income tax at all.
It is also expected to claim over half a million dollars in tax breaks for its new Lake Nona campus in Orlando, which would be “among the largest in state history for a single corporation,” the Orlando Sentinel reported. The new campus is being built for 2,000 Disney employees, including all Disney Parks and Imagineering jobs not dedicated to operations, who are being relocated from California to Florida, in part because of the latter’s “business-friendly climate.”
DeSantis and the GOP legislators criticizing Disney haven’t suggested changing the state’s favorable corporate tax conditions.
When it comes to the power Disney has in Florida politics, “nothing has actually changed,” said Eskamani, who called on Disney to be more vocal against the bill before the Senate vote. “At the end of the day, [DeSantis] hasn’t done anything. He’s yelling, he’s calling Disney ‘woke.’ But compared to yesterday and today, things are the same: same business model, same legislative benefits.”
A “small world” in and of itself
One of Disney’s biggest advantages is its self-governance. When the land that would become Walt Disney World was initially purchased in 1965, Florida residents didn’t know who the mysterious buyer was. Rumors circulated that it could be someone from the aerospace or automobile industry. Eventually the local paper, the Orlando Sentinel, cracked the story: It was Walt Disney setting out to build his second immersive theme park. The governor at the time, W. Haydon Burns, only learned about the purchase after the press.
But simply owning the land wasn’t enough: Disney also wanted control, and that came from the state legislature. In his initial vision, Epcot would be the highlight of Disney World, a fully functioning futuristic city complete with residential areas and a downtown convention center. To make that vision a reality, Disney secured the Reedy Creek Improvement District before construction on the park began. The district spans two counties and essentially gives Disney control over many of its day-to-day operations. Epcot the city was never built — it’s now one of the four theme parks — but the self-governance Disney secured remains.
When that’s been challenged, Disney has pushed back: When the legislation from the road-building industry set standards for what materials could go into street asphalt mixes across the state, Reedy Creek got an exception thanks to Disney lobbyists, according to reporting by Florida Trend. The company also lobbied against a 2013 bill that would have increased contract negotiating power for Reedy Creek firefighters.
The text of the original Reedy Creek act itself is sweeping, including everything from authorization for the district to “control mosquitoes and other pests” to the ability to build a nuclear reactor. But beyond the act’s buzzier aspects, it entails everything involved in running a city, from managing sewer systems to constructing new buildings, that Disney would need to run through Orange or Osceola counties’ governance if the act were revoked.
The governor’s office has emphasized that many economic incentives are available to all corporations, but that Reedy Creek is something Disney has that others certainly do not.
“That’s way too much latitude for one company to have,” Pushaw said, “to have their own government that affects the entire state without accountability to the state.”
The idea of fully revoking Reedy Creek is a marked shift, but aspects of Disney’s self-governance have long been questioned: As recently as 2019, senators discussed getting rid of Disney’s nuclear capability — although that wouldn’t change anything about current operations. And the Orlando Sentinel has been on the beat since it revealed the mysterious buyer of swampland in the ’60s.
“Um, yeah. Of course Disney shouldn’t have its own freakin’ government!” Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell wrote this week.
A changed Republican Party
Core economic stances that held the Republican Party together in the past, like being on the side of big business, have eroded in recent years, Jewett said. In the wake of the Donald Trump presidency, the GOP is more willing to go to bat against corporations, especially when it comes to social issues. Going after a large company like Disney isn’t off the table.
For its part, Disney has long attempted to maintain a delicate balance between nodding to its LGBTQ fan base and maintaining a version of “family-friendly” content that avoids depicting any kind of non-heterosexuality.
The company wasn’t initially vocal on the “Don’t Say Gay” bill: After meeting with LGBTQ employees, CEO Bob Chapek sent out a memo in early March saying that “corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds.” Hundreds of employees staged a walkout later that month in protest of Disney’s lackluster actions on the bill.
When Disney did take stronger action, it appears that it expected to conduct business as usual: calling legislators and trying to change the bill’s language, as the Miami Herald reported.
At a shareholder meeting held one day after the bill passed the legislature, Chapek alluded to the company’s expectation of getting what it wants from the state.
“We were opposed to the bill from the outset, but we chose not to take a public position on it because we thought we could be more effective working behind the scenes, engaging directly with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle,” he said at the meeting. “We were hoping that those long-standing relationships with those lawmakers would enable us to achieve a better outcome.”
The “Don’t Say Gay” bill is part of DeSantis’ national messaging as he is widely assumed to be eyeing a 2024 presidential run. The governor also prioritized the Stop WOKE Act, which bans classroom instruction and workplace trainings about racism and gender discrimination. The bill was passed by both the House and Senate last month; DeSantis is expected to sign it.
“Whenever you have an elected official making controversial decisions, they’re taking political calculations into account,” Jewett said. “I think he’s accurate in his belief that this helps him with Republican voters nationwide.”
Every time DeSantis rages against “woke” corporations or accuses Disney of trying to sexualize young children, “It’s $1 million into his PAC from all around the nation,” Jewett said. “If Disney doesn’t donate, he’ll make 10 times more by attacking them.”
A history of homophobia
The aggressive stance from Florida’s Republican lawmakers toward Disney may be new, but the way they have equated queerness with predation is not.
Florida has a history of persecuting LGBTQ residents in the name of protecting children. In 1964 — just a year before Walt Disney bought the up tracts of central Florida to build Disney World — a Florida legislative committee released a fearmongering booklet commonly referred to as the “Purple Pamphlet” because of its violet-hued cover.
The Johns Committee (named for its leader, Democratic State Sen. Charley E. Johns) was formed during the Red Scare; when the committee was unsuccessful at targeting people with suspected connections to communism, it turned to the state’s LGBTQ residents. The pamphlet, called “Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida: A Report of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee,” opens by laying out its primary purpose as a tool of the state but saying that “every parent and every individual concerned with the moral climate of the state, should be aware of the rise in homosexual activity noted here, and be possessed of the basic knowledge set forth.”
In parallel to the recently passed legislation, it styled itself as a resource for parents to “prepare their children to meet the temptations of homosexuality lurking today in the vicinity of nearly every institution of learning.” Although the Purple Pamphlet’s most severe recommendations for criminalizing queerness like making multiple “homosexual offenses” a felony court matter were never passed, the committee worked through the state Board of Education to investigate and fire Florida teachers suspected of being gay.
About a decade later, in 1977, singer Anita Bryant made the Dade County Commission’s ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation a national issue. Bryant’s “Save Our Children’' campaign relied on the argument that basic legal protections for gay people would lead to “recruitment” of children. Ultimately, her campaign succeeded in repealing the ordinance — one of the first of its kind — and denying Miami’s LGBTQ community protections from discrimination in employment, housing, labor unions and private education.
Ari Drennen, the LGBTQ program director for Media Matters for America, sees a direct line between Bryant’s rhetoric and recent Florida legislation.
“Trans activists have been saying, if [states] are successfully able to pass anti-trans legislation without pushback, they’ll return to attacking the broader LGBTQ community,” she said. “That’s exactly what happened.”
Last year, Florida passed a bill barring transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams in public schools. (DeSantis signed the bill on June 1, the first day of Pride Month.)
“The anti-gay forces out there, they didn’t really stop being homophobic,” Drennen said. “They just made a tactical decision to focus on trans people for a while. There was this idea that gay rights specifically were safe in America, and I just don’t think that’s the case.”
What does remain safe? Jewett thinks Disney’s special self-governance does. Reintegrating Disney into Orange and Osceola counties would be a massive task. And the lawmakers pushing for changes to Reedy Creek would need to still be fired up about it when the 2023 legislative session begins in March.
“‘My gut is that eventually they’ll work it out,” he said. “That Disney won’t lose Reedy Creek.”
And if there were moves to dismantle the district, he said, “Disney is not without its own resources. They are not going to stand idly by and have their whole business model dismantled.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.