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Disney vs. DeSantis: How the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ war is threatening the House of Mouse’s empire in Florida

Disney is used to getting what it wants — quietly. But escalating culture wars and a governor with national ambitions are changing the game.

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.

“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.

Republican Florida Reps. Louis Frey and Richard Kelly receive a globe from Disney World and Mickey Mouse in 1978.

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”

“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.

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.

The law has since been struck down because, as a federal judge wrote, it was tailored to avoid burdening “favored Florida businesses.”

DeSantis and the GOP legislators criticizing Disney haven’t suggested changing the state’s favorable corporate tax conditions.

A “small world” in and of itself

The first phase of Walt Disney World is constructed near Orlando, Florida, on Nov. 13, 1969.

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.

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.”

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.

Then-Disney Chairman of Parks, Experiences and Products Bob Chapek, who became chief executive in February 2020, speaks at the D23 Expo in Anaheim, California, on Aug. 22, 2019.

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.”

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.

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.

Anita Bryant looks for a booth to vote on a referendum on rights for LGBTQ individuals in Miami Beach, Florida.

“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.”

“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.”

First Lady Nancy Reagan kisses Mickey Mouse as President Ronald Reagan and Minnie Mouse watch, at Epcot in Florida.

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