How Disney maneuvered to save its Florida kingdom, leaving DeSantis threatening retaliation
In his yearlong battle with Disney, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has repeatedly leaned on the element of surprise in his attempts to outmaneuver the entertainment giant and its army of executives, high-priced lawyers and politically connected lobbyists.
“Nobody can see this coming,” DeSantis told a top Republican legislative leader as they planned a move against Disney last year, he recalled in his new book.
But when Disney finally struck back and thwarted, for now, a DeSantis-led state takeover of its long-standing special taxing district, it was the Republican governor who was seemingly caught off guard. The same February morning Disney pushed through an agreement with the district’s outgoing board that secured control of its development rights for decades to come, DeSantis had declared to cameras and supporters, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”
Now, weeks after DeSantis signed legislation intended to give the state power over Disney’s district, the company appears still in control of the huge swaths of land around its Orlando-area theme parks. Newly installed DeSantis allies overseeing the district are gearing up for a protracted legal fight while the governor has ordered an investigation. DeSantis on Thursday disputed that he had been outflanked by Disney and vowed further actions that could include taxes on its hotels, new tolls around its theme parks and developing land near its property.
“They can keep trying to do things, but, ultimately, we’re gonna win on every single issue involving Disney. I can tell you that,” the second-term governor said during an event at the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan.
The unlikely fracturing of Florida’s relationship with its most iconic business started during the contentious debate last year over state legislation to restrict certain classroom instruction on sexuality and gender identity. Disney’s then-CEO, Bob Chapek, facing pressure from his employees, reluctantly objected to the bill, leading DeSantis to criticize the company. When DeSantis signed the legislation into law, Disney announced it would push for its repeal. DeSantis then targeted Disney’s special governing powers.
For DeSantis, who has built a political brand by going toe-to-toe with businesses he identifies as “woke,” the latest twist threatens to undermine a central pillar of his story as he lays the groundwork for a likely presidential campaign. An entire chapter of his new autobiography is devoted to Disney, and the saga is well-featured in the stump speech he has delivered around the country in recent weeks.
In Florida’s capital of Tallahassee, some veteran Republican operatives, exhausted by DeSantis’ high-profile cultural fights, are tickled that Disney appears to have one-upped the governor, a GOP source said. Meanwhile, allies of former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination, have seized on the move to poke holes in DeSantis’ narrative, with MAGA Inc. PAC spokesman Taylor Budowich tweeting that the governor “just got out-negotiated by Mickey Mouse.” Other potential GOP contenders and Republicans have publicly raised objections to DeSantis’ targeting of a private business.
“Disney gave him a lot of rope,” said John Morgan, an influential Orlando-area trial lawyer and Democratic donor who is often complimentary of DeSantis. “They obviously tried to resolve it, but there was no stopping him because DeSantis wanted the fight. Disney always knew it had that trump card.”
Morgan’s legal career was inspired by his family’s failed attempts to sue the special district after his brother was paralyzed while working as a Disney lifeguard. But Morgan learned through that episode the difficulties of challenging a corporate titan.
“In the end, they were never going to lose this,” Morgan said.
Chess vs. checkers
What remains unanswered is how DeSantis appeared unaware of Disney’s maneuvering after spending the past year fixated on punishing and embarrassing the company.
As DeSantis plotted in secret, Disney moved in the open.
Its development agreement was approved over the course of two public meetings held two weeks apart earlier this year, both noticed in the local Orlando newspaper and attended by about a dozen residents and members of the media. No one from the governor’s office was present at either meeting, according to the meeting minutes.
“You spend all that energy and attention on Disney, and then no one minds the store?” said Aaron Goldberg, an author and Disney historian. “Disney was playing chess, and DeSantis was playing checkers.”
DeSantis’ office told CNN in a statement that it was first alerted to Disney’s efforts to thwart the state takeover of its special taxing district on March 18 by the district’s lawyers. Yet, the governor remained quiet until March 29, when his new appointees to Disney’s oversight board first made the public aware of the arrangement, drawing national attention and an outpouring of snickering from his detractors.
According to DeSantis’ office, Disney was pushing for silence. In a statement to CNN, Ray Treadwell, DeSantis’ chief deputy general counsel, accused Disney lobbyist Adam Babington of petitioning the governor’s office to help keep its agreement under wraps when the new board met on March 29.
“I made quite clear to him and the other Disney representatives that the validity of any such last-minute agreement would likely be challenged,” Treadwell said in the statement.
Disney and Babington did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In a previous statement, the company said, “All agreements signed between Disney and the District were appropriate, and were discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums in compliance with Florida’s Government in the Sunshine law.”
The episode is illustrative of the potential pitfalls of seeking to score political points against a big corporation fighting on its home turf. Addressing the controversy during a call with shareholders Monday, Disney CEO Bob Iger signaled he wouldn’t back away from the fight, calling DeSantis’ actions “not just anti-business, but it sounds anti-Florida.”
“A lot of us anticipated Disney would strike back and not allow its powers be taken away without some kind of response,” said Richard Foglesong, author of “Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando.”
“It must have been ticklish on Disney’s part that it wasn’t noticed initially,” he said.
When DeSantis first clashed with Disney last year, Foglesong signed a copy of his book that a DeSantis political ally intended to hand to the governor. Through an unvarnished lens, the book chronicles the Reedy Creek Improvement District – the special government body that state lawmakers created in 1967 to give Disney the power to develop and then control nearly every facet of its theme park empire – and the local officials who paid a political price for challenging the House of Mouse.
DeSantis’ office wouldn’t say if he had read the book. Foglesong said there’s a message in its pages that DeSantis should have heeded: “Simply don’t count Disney out.”