It took a single stroke of Ron DeSantis’s pen, passing Florida’s so-called “don’t say gay” bill into law, to transform the self-proclaimed happiest place on earth into a scene of bitter conflict.
Disney’s theme parks have become the latest battlefront in the pugnacious rightwing Republican governor’s culture war on what he calls “wokeness”, and on the state’s LBGTQ+ community. DeSantis, a close Trump ally, and perhaps rival, is threatening sanctions on the corporate behemoth after he dared to challenge the controversial law banning discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms.
DeSantis, however, is no comedic Disney villain doomed to lose and be taught the error of his ways before peace is restored to the kingdom.
The ambitious Trumpist governor, many observers say, has sights set on his own presidential run in 2024, and doesn’t care if he tramples Florida’s largest private employer and its notably diverse cast of almost 80,000 to get there. Or if he upends the tradition of decades of special privilege Disney has enjoyed in Florida in return for the tens of millions of dollars it has spent on political lobbying and campaign contributions.
Those perks include the right to self-government, granted to Disney by the Florida legislature in 1967 when the Magic Kingdom was under construction in Orlando, and which vocal DeSantis loyalists are now seeking to repeal in order to punish the company.
“He’s running in a GOP primary for president of the United States, which is the motivating factor behind every single decision that he makes,” Carlos Guillermo Smith, an openly gay Democratic member of the Florida house, said.
“This doesn’t make Floridians better off, unfortunately. It’s all about Ron DeSantis, what he wants, and what helps his political future. They are [also] abusing their power and trying to scare Floridians and businesses away from expressing any support for the LGBTQ community.
“We have major problems in Florida, and Governor DeSantis seems more interested in settling scores and seeking retribution against people who don’t agree with his agenda.”
DeSantis’s feud with Disney has escalated in recent days following the company’s statement that it would work to repeal the law, which experts say stigmatizes gay and transgender people, and could harm children’s mental health and lead to suicides.
Last week, the governor appeared to back the proposal by Spencer Roach, a Republican state congressman, to cancel the 1967 agreement, which allowed the company to build then operate Disney World autonomously. Disney, DeSantis said, had “crossed the line” by committing to help overturn the “don’t say gay” law, officially known as the Parental Rights in Education Act, and that it was time for Disney’s “special privileges” to end.
“They’re used to having their way, and they’re not used to having people that will stand in their way,” DeSantis said at a press conference in St Johns county.
“Actually, the state of Florida’s going to be governed by the best interests of the people in Florida. We’re certainly not going to bend the knee to woke executives in California,” he added, referring to Disney’s corporate headquarters in Burbank.
In an email to the Guardian, DeSantis’s spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, denied DeSantis was seeking “retaliation” over Disney for its stance.
“For his entire political career, his position has always been that all businesses should be able to compete on a fair playing field, and that it’s wrong for governments to dole out favors to politically connected companies,” she said.
But records show that Disney, which announced last month it was suspending all political donations in the state as the “don’t say gay” bill progressed, contributed almost $1m to the Republican party of Florida in 2020, and $50,000 directly to DeSantis.
Meanwhile, an analysis compiled by Anna Eskamani, a Democratic state congresswoman representing Disney’s central Florida heartland, lists decades of perks and privileges she says the company has enjoyed from lawmakers.
They feature millions of dollars in sales and property tax breaks, corporate income tax refunds, and language inserted into, or left out of certain legislation that would affect the company, including a human trafficking bill that could have exposed its hotels to lawsuits, and an exemption to regulations over materials used in road construction on Disney property.
“The governor hasn’t held the company accountable beyond yelling about it on Fox News,” said Eskamani, who stressed that she accepts no corporate campaign contributions.
“Disney’s business model, and tax structures, have remained unchanged, and even the governor’s office has helped Disney maintain special privileges. So much of this I find to be ironic.
“But that’s not what he’s talking about. He’s talking about specific, punitive punishments of one company because they dare speak out against a homophobic and transphobic bill because they have LGBTQ+ employees who are scared for their health and wellbeing.
“[Disney] needs to recruit and retain diverse staff and will not be able to do that the direction Florida is going. As economic partners they have every right to express themselves, but under the DeSantis administration, if you dare challenge him, he will bully you into submission.”
Pushback on DeSantis has also come from Republicans. Larry Hogan, the governor of Maryland, told CNN: “The whole thing seems like just a crazy fight. The bill was kind of absurd and not something that would have happened in our state.”
For its part, Disney appears to have been caught wrong-footed by the furore. The company was accused of voicing its opposition late, and issuing its statement only after an outcry and walkout by cast members.
Chief executive Bob Chapek apologized for “pain, frustration and sadness” caused by his earlier silence in a letter aimed at his LBGTQ+ workers. “You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down,” he wrote.
The misstep also allowed DeSantis to seize on perceived “dishonesty” by Disney, which employs dozens of lobbyists in Tallahassee but did not use them to speak with lawmakers as the law was drafted.
“They didn’t seem to have a problem with it when it was going through. This was such an affront, why weren’t they speaking up at the outset?” DeSantis said.
In a further blow to Disney’s attempts to make amendments, the Human Rights Campaign is refusing a $5m donation until the company proves its commitment to work with LGBTQ+ advocates to overturn the “don’t say gay” law.
Disney did not respond to emails seeking comment.
“Disney is caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Charles Zelden, professor of humanities and politics at Nova Southeastern University and a longtime Florida Disney watcher.
“I suspect their lobbyists told them, ‘You know, keep quiet on this’ and that’s what they tried to do, but then they couldn’t because the cast members rose up and said, ‘You got to object to this’. They can’t afford to alienate not only their cast members but people who support a more liberal, diverse society.”
Zelden said he was curious about DeSantis’s next move.
“Disney has all these lobbyists to make sure they don’t lose their special taxing district. So it just means that the fight will progress into the legislature, and they’ve got a heck of a tool with their money and their clout to fend off concrete attacks,” he said.
“The verbal attacks will continue, but as long as it stays that way, the Mouse is all right.”