You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Disney Faces Backlash in Florida Amid 'Don't Say Gay' Controversy

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 4/15/2022 Robbie Whelan, Arian Campo-Flores
© Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Getty Images

When Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Chapek explained his decision to stay silent on Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, known by its opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, he told employees in a March letter that he didn’t want Disney to become a “political football.”

More than a month later, that’s exactly what Disney has become, nowhere more than in the Sunshine State.

Some Republican lawmakers in Florida are threatening to end a special tax district that has allowed the company to effectively govern the land on which Walt Disney World sits for decades. Members of Congress have called for Disney to be stripped of its original Mickey Mouse copyright.

Politicians are campaigning for re-election on promises to stand up to Disney and other “woke corporations” that they say are promoting messages and taking stands that put them out of step with the values of Florida parents and voters. Fans and park workers protested outside the company’s headquarters earlier this month, and others have used social media to call for boycotts against Disney’s parks and its flagship streaming service, Disney+.

Mr. Chapek and Disney stayed silent on the bill until after the Florida state Senate voted for it on March 8. Soon after the vote, Mr. Chapek moved quickly to reassure angry employees who criticized the company for not taking a stand. Later, the company said the bill “should never have been passed,” and vowed to fight for its repeal and to fight other bills like it in other states.

The Florida bill prohibits classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation for schoolchildren through grade three, and limits it for older students to material that is “age appropriate.”

President Biden condemned the bill as hateful toward LGBT people, and Disney employees organized walkouts in protest of it. Public-opinion polling on the measure is mixed, but most polls have found that the bill and others like it in other states generally have the support of about half of voters surveyed.

As Disney enters the second month of fallout from its handling of the Florida bill, now it’s politicians and fans, more than employees, who are using the company as a punching bag, underscoring how perilous it can be for a family-oriented entertainment company to take a stand on sensitive social issues.

Disney, one of Florida’s largest private-sector employers, with nearly 80,000 workers, declined to comment on criticism from lawmakers. Inside the company, some executives have expressed disappointment that Disney has become politicized, said people familiar with their thinking.

This month, Rep. Jim Banks, a Republican from Indiana, sent a letter to Mr. Chapek saying he opposed extending the original copyright for Mickey Mouse, which is set to expire at the end of 2023. Certain Disney copyrights have been extended repeatedly in the past by acts of Congress.

Mr. Banks wrote that he now opposes further extensions because he objects to Disney’s investments in China and because the company has “capitulated to far-left activists” on LGBT issues. Two other U.S. House members have since voiced support for Mr. Banks’s letter.

A small group of Florida Republicans has resurrected the idea of repealing what’s known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a 38-square-mile plot of land near Orlando that includes Walt Disney World and was created in 1967 by the state of Florida at the request of Walt Disney himself.


Video: DeSantis questions Disney's special operating status after company opposes anti-gay bill (MSNBC)

UP NEXT
UP NEXT

The Reedy Creek district, believed to be one of the largest independent tax districts in the country, is exempt from many state and local environmental rules, building codes and taxes, allowing Walt Disney World to have more control over its development projects. The district has its own board of supervisors and fire and police departments.

It’s unclear exactly how much the benefits Disney gets from Reedy Creek are worth, but the district collected $140 million in taxes last year from Disney, according to public filings. Disney saves tens of millions of dollars a year by avoiding paying certain county and state taxes and fees, according to a former executive who studied the issue over a decade ago. A representative of the district declined to comment.

Disney’s challenges in the state come after the company reported record income from its theme parks and resorts business in its most recent financial disclosures.

“Disney has wielded an enormous amount of power in this state and has basically been untouchable, but now they are in their weakest position, politically, in more than 50 years,” said Spencer Roach, a Republican state representative from Lee County, on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Mr. Roach, who is seeking re-election in November, in early April published a tweet calling for the repeal of the state law that established Reedy Creek, saying that the tax-exempt district gives Disney an unfair competitive advantage over other companies in the entertainment business in Florida.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who clashed repeatedly with Disney in recent weeks, signaled his support for the effort.

“Disney had held so much sway, they were able to sustain a lot of special treatment over the years,” Mr. DeSantis said last month in response to a reporter’s question. “And if that stops now, which it should, that’ll be a good thing for Florida.”

Anthony Sabatini, a state representative from exurban Orlando, is running for Congress this fall and says that standing up to “woke corporatism and corporate tyranny” from companies like Disney will be a central tenet of his campaign.

The political backlash is unlikely to drag on Disney’s financial results in the short term, but there remains concern that political fallout might continue to alienate the company’s creative employees and drive them to competitors, said Laura Martin, a media analyst with Needham & Co.

Republican state Rep. Joe Harding, chief sponsor of the Parental Rights in Education bill, said while Disney has a lot of assets in Florida, company executives in the state told him that the decision to oppose the bill came from California.

“They’re not a company in line with Florida values,” Mr. Harding said.

The prospect of Republican state leaders—who have long presented themselves as pro-business and have benefited from Disney’s political contributions—battling one of the state’s largest employers is jarring for many. Disney last month said it is pausing all political contributions in Florida.

“It’s just really quite shocking to see Disney in this situation, coming under attack from Republicans” who traditionally have been supportive of Disney, said Aubrey Jewett, a political-science professor at the University of Central Florida.

Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani, whose district is in the Orlando area, said she considered Republican opposition to Disney an effort to rebuke the company for speaking out, rather than a principled stance against corporate influence.

“My concern is that much of this seems punitive in nature,” Ms. Eskamani said. “Disney stood up to say, ‘We don’t consent to homophobia and transphobia.’ ”

Some longtime Disney fans have canceled streaming subscriptions and vowed not to spend any more money at Disney parks in response to the media push over LGBT issues and the Florida bill. The conservative group Moms for America has planned a protest this Saturday at the entrance of Walt Disney World in Orlando.

Jordan Smith, a pastor and charter schoolteacher in Jacksonville, canceled his Disney+ account this month because he disagreed with the company’s stance on the bill. “I think that Disney took a strong stance against parents,” he said.

Write to Robbie Whelan at robbie.whelan@wsj.com and Arian Campo-Flores at arian.campo-flores@wsj.com

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal.
The Wall Street Journal.
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon