JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A day after Florida’s GOP-led legislature passed a bill ending Disney’s self-governance status, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the measure into law along with two other bills aimed at curbing the company’s “woke” agenda.
Mr. DeSantis, appearing before a crowd of supporters in Hialeah Gardens, said the legislation “sets the marker” for Florida corporations who act like Disney, which publicly fought the governor’s parental rights bill banning sex education in kindergarten through third grade, and then pledged to work to repeal the law.
It was a major victory for Mr. DeSantis, a Republican rising star who is eyeing a presidential run in 2024, further building his credibility as a conservative champion.
When he signed the bills Friday, the governor offered his most extensive explanations yet for his aggressive targeting of the theme park giant, which is one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions, urging the crowd to watch videos of Disney executives in a recent zoom call pledging to incorporate “queer stories,” and more LGBTQ individuals in children’s entertainment.
“These are videos of very high up people in this corporation and Disney and they’re talking about their intentional agenda to inject sexuality in the programming that’s provided to our youngest kids – my own kids’ ages, five, four and two,” Mr. DeSantis said. “That is just fundamentally wrong. I’m just not comfortable having that type of agenda get special treatment in my state. I just can’t do it.”
In addition to ending Disney’s autonomous tax district, which has allowed them to operate as a private city for the last 55 years and escape tens of millions of dollars in development taxes, Mr. DeSantis signed a bill banning schools and corporations from forcing employees to undergo diversity training that includes elements of critical race theory.
The bill targets parts of Disney’s “Reimagine Tomorrow” program, which urges employees in training to recognize their “white privilege,” “systemic racism,” and “white fragility,” and encourages parents to pledge to raise “race-consciousness in children,” because, “even babies discriminate,” according to City Journal’s Christopher Rufo, who wrote about the training guide last year.
Mr. DeSantis signed a third bill that also targets Disney by subjecting the corporation to the state’s new law prohibiting Big Tech from de-platforming conservatives or other individuals by ending their protections from lawsuits. Disney had been exempted from the law. It penalizes social media companies that ban Florida political candidates, with fines up to $250,000 per day for those running for a state-wide office.
A federal judge has temporarily blocked the law from being implemented, ruling it violates the first amendment.
Disney fell out of favor with Mr. DeSantis in March, when the company publicly objected to the Parental Rights in Education bill, which prohibits sex education, including teaching about transgenderism, to students below the fourth grade.
Democrats and LGBTQ organizations said the legislation discriminates against transgender and gay individuals and began calling the measure the “Don’t say gay” bill.
Disney executives, under pressure from liberal groups, Hollywood and their employees, lobbied Mr. DeSantis to veto the bill and when he signed it, they pledged to help repeal it.
“We signed the bill and then, incredibly, they say, we are going to work to repeal parents’ rights in Florida,” Mr. DeSantis said, “And I’m just thinking to myself, ‘You’re a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you’re going to marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state?’ We view that as a provocation and we’re going to fight back against that.”
Disney representatives did not respond to a request for comment about the legislation.
The three-pronged attack against Disney could have lasting and costly repercussions for the company. Disney has operated in central Florida with near-total autonomy since the 1960s when Walt Disney asked state lawmakers to create the special district so he could more easily build and expand his theme park empire.
The legislation ending Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District would eliminate Disney’s special autonomy and authority over 39 square miles in Orange and Osceola counties that include the Disney theme parks and resorts as well as the Downtown Disney shopping area and surrounding hotels.
Disney would be subjected to Osceola and Orange County planning and zoning laws, as well as building inspections, and
the park would also be required to pay new fees and taxes it is exempted from under its status as an improvement district when it expands or builds on the property.
Democrats and other critics of the bill warn that ending the special taxing district will force Osceola and Orange County residents to pay higher taxes, but Mr. DeSantis denied the claim.
“Don’t worry, we have everything thought out,” Mr. DeSantis said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that somehow Disney is going to get a tax cut out of this. They’re going to pay more taxes as a result of it.”
The bill eliminating the special district does not go into effect until 2023, leaving time to put a plan in place for the two counties to begin managing the park, or for the legislature to pass a new bill reconstituting the Reedy Creek Improvement District, but likely with less autonomy.
Republicans point out that Disney’s current self-governing authority is so broad that it would allow the park to build a nuclear power plant or an airport without seeking permits from the counties or the state.
“I would have signed this bill three years ago if it had come to my desk just on basic principle,” Mr. DeSantis said. “But I think that partnership that developed early on, with Walt Disney, I don’t think Walt would appreciate what’s going on in this company right now.”