LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed a bill that gives him control of Walt Disney World’s self-governing district, punishing the company over its opposition to the Parental Rights in Education law, which some critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
The bill requires DeSantis, a Republican, to appoint a five-member board to oversee the government services that the Disney district provides in its sprawling theme park properties in Florida.
“Today the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” he said at a bill signing ceremony in Lake Buena Vista. “There’s a new sheriff in town, and accountability will be the order of the day.”
The signing came as DeSantis gears up for an expected presidential run and marks a high-profile legislative victory for a governor whose leveraging of cultural and political divides has pushed him to the fore of national Republican politics.
The takeover of the Disney district began last year when the entertainment giant, facing intense pressure, publicly opposed the Parent Rights in Education law, which bars instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and lessons deemed not age-appropriate.
DeSantis moved quickly to penalize the company, directing lawmakers in the GOP-dominated Legislature to dissolve Disney’s self-governing district during a special legislative session, beginning a closely watched restructuring process. DeSantis and other Republican critics of Disney slammed the company for coming out against the education law, calling it a purveyor of “woke” ideology that injects inappropriate subjects into children’s entertainment.
This month, the governor called on lawmakers to return to the Capitol for another special session to finalize state control of the district, as well as approve legislation around some of his other key legislative priorities on immigration and voter fraud.
In taking on Disney, DeSantis furthered his reputation as a culture warrior willing to battle perceived political enemies and wield the power of state government to accomplish political goals, a strategy that is expected to continue ahead of his potential White House run.
The feud also reinforced the governor’s brash, go-it-alone leadership style, penalizing a massive employer, tourism driver and political donor in the state over the company’s stance on a piece of legislative policy.
DeSantis, whose book, “The Courage to be Free,” is coming out Tuesday, has moved in recent weeks to expand his political network through fundraisers and meetings with donors, elected officials and conservative influencers, adding to the speculation around his larger political aspirations.
The coming months will be critical to DeSantis as he builds his profile out beyond Florida. He is expected to utilize the coming regular legislative session, which begins next week, to bolster his conservative agenda before he announces his candidacy for president.
The new law changes the district’s name from the Reedy Creek Improvement District to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and subjects it to various layers of state oversight. Board members were previously named through entities controlled by Disney.
It leaves the district and its financial abilities and debt obligations intact, addressing a chief concern of surrounding governments. It also prevents people who have worked with or contracted with a theme park in the past three years from serving on the district’s new governing board.
At his news conference, DeSantis said he would appoint Tampa attorney Martin Garcia as the chairman of the district’s new governing board, along with new board members Bridget Ziegler, a conservative school board member and wife of the Florida Republican party chairman Christian Ziegler; Brian Aungst Jr., an attorney and son of a former two-term Republican mayor of Clearwater; Mike Sasso, an attorney; and Ron Peri, head of The Gathering USA ministry.
Having a separate government allows the district to issue bonds and provide zoning, fire protection, utilities and infrastructure services on its land. Republican critics of the district argue it gives Disney a commercial advantage unavailable to others.
The creation of the self-governing district was instrumental in Disney’s decision to build near Orlando in the 1960s. The company had told the state it planned to build a futuristic city that would include a transit system and urban planning innovations, so the company needed autonomy in building and deciding how to use the land. The futuristic city never materialized and instead morphed into a second theme park that opened in 1982.
Disney did not immediately return an emailed request from the Associated Press for comment.
After the bill was passed earlier this month by the Florida Legislature, Walt Disney World President Jeff Vahle released a statement saying, “For more than 50 years, the Reedy Creek Improvement District has operated at the highest standards, and we appreciate all that the District has done to help our destination grow and become one of the largest economic contributors and employers in the state. We are focused on the future and are ready to work within this new framework, and we will continue to innovate, inspire and bring joy to the millions of guests who come to Florida to visit Walt Disney World every year.”
DeSantis is term-limited as governor and could very well run for president, but as for future politics in Florida, University of North Florida political science professor Sean Freeder says that if there are economic problems in Central Florida as a result of this, expect Florida Democrats to pounce.
“You can imagine that if there’s a decreased level of tourism that comes out of the area if certain proposals are rejected by Disney that DeSantis opponents and Democra,ts in genre,al pick up and run on in coming years,” Freeder said.
Freeder said the law has some delays built in for the takeover of the district—which could politically insulate Republicans because the changes will be slow.