The Walt Disney Company is one of the most powerful corporations in Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis is a rising political star in the political party that dominates the state.
Despite that self-evident truth, Disney unwisely — perhaps stupidly — challenged the governor to fight back when it came out against the Parental Rights in Education bill, which opponents have deliberately misnamed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
According to this article in The Grid, Disney exercised its considerable power and influence under the radar and behind the scenes — until now. Whether the company became overtly political because of lobbying by a small but vocal radical minority who demanded Disney “do something” about the bill or whether executives were already on board with a radical agenda isn’t important.
What matters is that, in the struggle between Disney and the Republican governor and potential 2024 candidate for president, Disney is currently losing. And if it doesn’t cut its losses and go back to making kids smile and stockholders happy, the fallout will cost it dearly.
Republican lawmakers have given Disney extraordinary concessions over the years that pretty much allow the company to do whatever it wants. But that may change. And if it does, Disney, the state of Florida, or the Florida Republican Party will never be the same.
The current situation leaves Disney “trying to slay the beast that they made,” said State Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat representing Orlando who has criticized the sway of corporate dollars in Florida politics. “They were giving to these Republicans who have a history of homophobic and transphobic stances. They gave without a second thought. Republicans also accepted those donations without a second thought.”
And that arrangement worked for both sides — until now. DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, told Grid that Disney’s statement pledging to do everything possible to repeal the law marks a turning point. “Disney is not the legislature,” she said. “They’re not the governor. Nobody elected them.”
The company, sitting on 43 square miles of Florida real estate, expanded to four parks and two water parks over the years and now welcomes an estimated 58 million people annually, making it the most-visited resort in the world.
But next to the power of a legislature or governor, Disney is just one more special pleader looking for breaks in the taxes its pays and the rules it follows.
In the past decade, Disney’s dollars flowing to Tallahassee have skyrocketed: The company spent a total of $2.1 million on state elections in 2010, according to reporting by Florida Trend, including donations to candidates, state parties, political committees and constitutional amendment campaigns. By 2018, when DeSantis was elected governor, that figure ballooned to $28.3 million on Florida state elections.
In 2020, Disney donated $4.8 million just to individual candidates in Florida, as well as $50,000 to DeSantis.
The knife DeSantis and Republicans hold to Disney’s throat is the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a legislative carve-out that made Disney the king of its own little country in Florida. There has been much discussion in recent weeks about whether the GOP would use this nuclear option to try and force Disney to toe the line or, failing that, kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
The truth is that neither Disney nor DeSantis can afford to use the nuclear option. Disney can’t threaten to leave Florida and DeSantis can’t really threaten to shut them down.
But DeSantis can bleed Disney until it hurts. By removing selected carve-outs for Disney on taxes, real estate, and other perks the company has won over the years, DeSantis and the Republicans could make the company regret the day it challenged them over the Parental Rights bill.
Disney could retaliate and drastically reduce its political donations to Republicans, but who are they going to give to? Democrats, who want to tax them even more?
Disney CEO Bob Chapek has put himself in a very difficult position. He can’t easily backtrack or he would have a very vocal, very public revolt by very angry and politically connected LGBTQ employees. And he can’t full-on embrace the transgender agenda as demanded by the radical left or Disney theme parks would empty out the next day.
So he’s stuck between the two sides, hoping that if he keeps his mouth shut, he can survive. It’s not much of a strategy for success, but it’s all he has.