- The Washington Times
Friday, April 22, 2022

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A day after Florida’s Republican-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. Disney publicly fought the parental rights bill banning sex education in kindergarten through third grade and then pledged to work to repeal the law.

The controversy further built Mr. DeSantis’ credentials as a conservative champion as he considers a Republican presidential run in 2024.

When he signed the bills Friday, the governor offered his most extensive explanations yet for his aggressive targeting of the theme park giant, one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions. He urged the crowd to watch Disney executives in a recent videoconference pledging to incorporate “queer stories” and more LGBTQ people into 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, 5, 4 and 2,” 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.”

With the stroke of a pen, Mr. DeSantis ended Disney’s autonomous tax district, which has allowed it to operate as a private city for 55 years and escape tens of millions of dollars in development taxes. The governor also signed a bill that bans 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,” said City Journal’s Christopher Rufo, who wrote about the training guide last year. 

Mr. DeSantis signed a third bill that subjects Disney to the state’s new law prohibiting Big Tech from deplatforming conservatives or others by ending their protections from lawsuits. Disney had been exempted from the law, which levies fines of up to $250,000 per day for social media companies that ban Florida politicians running for statewide office. 

A federal judge, saying the law violates the First Amendment, has temporarily blocked it. 

Disney fell out of favor with Mr. DeSantis in March when the company publicly objected to the Parental Rights in Education legislation, which prohibits sex education, including teaching about transgenderism, before fourth grade.

Democrats and LGBTQ organizations said the legislation discriminates against transgender and gay people. They call it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. 

Under pressure from liberal groups, Hollywood and their employees, Disney executives lobbied Mr. DeSantis to veto the bill. When the governor signed it, opponents 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 and building inspections. The park also loses its tax and fee exemption as an improvement district when it expands or builds on the property.

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 dismissed 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 next year, leaving time for the two counties to put a plan into place for managing the park or for the Legislature to pass a bill reconstituting the Reedy Creek Improvement District but likely with less autonomy.

Republicans point out that Disney’s 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.”

• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at sferrechio@washingtontimes.com.

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