DeSantis v. Disney

Florida’s Disney Parks, consisting of Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios, have enjoyed privileges through the operation of their own self-governance since the parks opened, including special tax privileges. This week, Florida governor Ron DeSantis made several statements regarding the takedown of Disney’s self-controlled government in Central Florida.

After the “parental rights in education bill,” also known as the "Don’t Say Gay" bill, was passed last year, Disney spoke out against it. Bob Chapek, the CEO of Disney at the time, claimed that the Walt Disney Company was “reassessing our approach to advocacy — including political giving in Florida and beyond.” Such a statement came after pressure from employees to react, and once the bill was signed into law, Disney also agreed to push for its repeal.

In February, in response to Disney’s statement, DeSantis declared he would sign a bill to strip Disney of its self-governing status in the area of the parks, the Reedy Creek Development District. The bill will also remove Disney’s exemption from the Florida building code and fire prevention code from state regulatory review and approval. DeSantis claimed the bill would “prevent local governments dominated by leftist politicians from using the situation to raise local taxes.” He created a board that would take away Disney’s control of Reedy Creek, to which he can appoint members. He also shifted the blame to California, insinuating that the leftist ideologies from the California park are being transferred into the Florida parks.

Bob Iger, current CEO of the Walt Disney company, called DeSantis’ decision “anti-business and anti-Florida,” claiming that DeSantis “sought to punish a company for the exercise of a constitutional right.”

In preparation of DeSantis' maneuverings, the former board of Reedy Creek signed a Declaration of Restrictive Covenants with Disney 19 days before DeSantis’ bill was signed, nullifying the bill and allowing Disney to continue holding power over the Reedy Creek area. As part of this, the “rule against perpetuities” had been enacted, which was set to expire until 21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III -- a fun bit of legalese that allows parties to establish indefinite agreements without explicitly stating that they are indefinite. This agreement was discussed in public meetings in the weeks prior to the agreement being signed, and was conducted in accordance with Florida law.

DeSantis retorted last Thursday, claiming the changes Disney made those days before the bill was signed would be voided. He said he would target Disney with taxes on their hotels, tolls on roads around the parks, and developing land nearby. However, any attempts to remove Disney's special privileges would likely be met with backlash, as it would require the state to take over the outstanding debt of the Reedy Creek district (estimated at $1 billion), and take over maintenance and services for the 25,000 acres around Disney World.

Until then, it seems Disney still has the upper hand.