The hostilities between the Walt Disney Company and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis burst into a thermonuclear war on Wednesday when the company filed a lawsuit against the state amid the state’s efforts to limit the company’s control over its vast Orlando complex.
Public and private sector entities have tussled before, but it’s impossible to recall an example of a government official taking on a private company as important to the local economy as Disney is to Orlando and Florida. For starters, Disney is the state’s third-largest employer and, by far, the largest employer operating from a single site. In addition to 75,000 direct employees, an independent 2019 study found that Disney’s activities support a total of 460,000 jobs and $75 billion of spending in central Florida. Moreover, Disney’s minimum wage of $18 per hour is higher than either Publix’s ($11) or Walmart’s ($14).
In 2022, Disney welcomed an estimated 50 million visitors, more than third of all tourists who entered the state. Disney paid $1.1 billion in state and local taxes in 2022. An independent estimate says its activities are responsible for generating an additional $4.7 billion of tax revenue.
The crux of the dispute between Disney and the state is over the company’s “special district,” an area of 39 square miles over which Disney essentially exercises control under an agreement that goes back to the original construction of the park in 1967. In the spring of 2022, after Disney criticized Florida’s new “Don’t Say Gay” law that restricts discussion of gender identity in schools, DeSantis pushed a law through the Florida legislature that would revoke this designation. Then the state realized it would have to assume the costs of running the special district as well as responsibility for the $1 billion of municipal debt on it.
So instead it appointed its own members to the five-person governing board. Before those changes took effect, Disney responded by putting in place a series of agreements limiting the new board’s ability to govern the Disney complex. Last week, the legislature moved to void those agreements. This all lead to Disney filing its lawsuit yesterday, alleging targeted retaliation from the state for free speech.
It’s important to note that special districts are not uncommon in Florida. The Villages, a huge retirement community not far away, has one, as does the Daytona Speedway.
Even more bizarre about the war between Disney and DeSantis is that until last year, Disney was a significant donor to Florida Republicans, far more generous than it was to local Democrats – in no small part because Republicans have held a trifecta in the state since 1999. All told, since 2001, the company has given nearly $16 million to Republican candidates and political action committees, compared to less than $4 million to Democrats. Because much of the money went to PACs, it’s hard to know how much ended up in DeSantis’s campaign coffers but was certainly a meaningful share. (Between 2019 and 2021, the company gave over $100,000 to the “Friends of Ron DeSantis” PAC.)
But after the war with DeSantis began, Disney’s contributions evaporated; in March 2022, the company’s former chief executive officer, Bob Chapek, announced a pause in all state-level donations.