Will Ron DeSantis’s Feud with Disney Be His Political Undoing?

This piece is one side of the argument in our two-post debate on Ron DeSantis’s feud with Disney. You can find the argument on the other side, written by Graham Walker, here.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is plainly serious about the presidential race, but can he build the momentum needed to win the Republican Party nomination? A key to his campaign’s success may well be how he unwinds his political feud with the Disney Corporation. 

Based in Los Angeles, Disney is one of the world’s most influential multinational companies. It’s also Florida’s second-largest employer. More than 80,000 people work for Disney in Florida. According to one widely cited study by Oxford Economics, Disney anchors a tourism industry in Central Florida that generates $75 billion in economic impact, employs 463,000 people and sends $5.8 billion to the state of Florida in tax revenues. 

Disney’s relationship with the Florida government was civil enough until 2022 when the Florida legislature pushed through legislation to limit curriculum on sex and gender education in the K-3 grades. The Disney Corporation objected, under pressure from its employees, exercising well-recognized (and constitutionally protected) free speech rights to publicly oppose the legislation. 

Disney’s audacity to publicly disagree with the governor incensed DeSantis and his allies. 

DeSantis tasked his staff with combing through state statutes to find a way to punish them. They found it in the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Reedy Creek was created in 1969 to fill a gaping hole in Florida’s ability to manage large-scale, complex land development. Reedy Creek gave Disney, a private company, the leeway—and the authority—to plan, build the necessary infrastructure, and pay for the public services needed to service the then undeveloped area encompassing the Disney properties. 

While anti-Disney Republicans refer to Reedy Creek as a “tax break,” this terminology is misleading at best. Reedy Creek is a special district, one of the thousands used across the country and Florida to address specific needs and problems. 

Moreover, Disney, in effect, taxes itself to pay for public improvements through the district. Indeed, the tax rate is higher than is generally imposed by Florida counties, according to accounting professors at North Carolina State University. 

The partisan nature of the governor’s retributive measure is obvious. No grassroots support existed for reforming Reedy Creek. On the contrary, local elected officials and citizens were satisfied with the arrangements and appreciated Disney’s willingness to shoulder these burdens. Indeed, even the Florida Audubon Society praised Disney’s environmental stewardship

Nevertheless, DeSantis worked with the legislature to create a new district, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. DeSantis picked the governing board members, all of whom were partisan activists, and only one had extensive land use experience. 

While the epic drama itself would make for a Hollywood blockbuster, the current tit-for-tat is personal and political. DeSantis is doubling down on his intent to pummel Disney into submission through the legal process.

DeSantis might lose the legal battle with Disney. But he might win the war, which will not bode well for American business. His powerplay against Disney increasingly seems aimed at intimidating the business community and other opponents to stay silent. 

Ironically, if DeSantis succeeds as president, he may finally be linking arms with progressive leftists who have long sought ways to subordinate private business interests to the will of political forces. 

But unless he can find a way to unwind his feud with Disney, will DeSantis’s campaign against “woke” businesses be his political undoing? 

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center, a market-oriented think tank in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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