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Ron DeSantis Got Played by Disney

Intelligencer 3/30/2023 Matt Stieb
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images © Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

After sparring with the Walt Disney Company for years over vaccine mandates and the company’s criticism of the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Florida governor Ron DeSantis thought he had the House of Mouse beat. Earlier this year, he signed a law that would seize a tax entity called the Reedy Creek Improvement District — which, for the past 50 years, has let the Magic Kingdom basically run its own municipal services — and hand it over to his allies. “When you lose your way, you gotta have people that are going to tell you the truth,” DeSantis said in February. “All these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate.”

But before DeSantis was able to replace the Reedy Creek board’s members with his own donors, the outgoing members had one last maneuver — as DeSantis and his supporters just found out. In a meeting on February 8, the board approved a measure to strip itself of its broad authority (similar to that of a county) and to give Disney “prior review and comment” on any changes in order to “ensure consistency with the overall design and theming” of the park. The board also is not allowed to use Disney’s name or trademarks, including “fanciful characters such as Mickey Mouse.”

“I’m surprised that they didn’t tell us about it as soon as we were appointed,” said incoming board member Brian Aungst Jr. after a meeting on Wednesday in which the news was made public. Another new member, Ron Peri, said that the measure “essentially makes Disney the government” and that all they can do at the moment is “maintain the roads and maintain basic infrastructure.”

It was a clever act of sabotage, made even more so by a so-called royal-lives clause. To get around a contract that bans rules that are in effect in perpetuity, the outgoing board made it so Disney would retain its new powers “until 21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III.” Only when (or maybe if) the Mountbatten-Windsor family ends would Disney lose its special-tax privileges.

DeSantis has taken up Disney’s “woke ideology” as a major front in the culture war he is riding to a likely presidential bid, so it’s unlikely that he’s going to let some local apparatchiks win with such an obscure clause. Already, a spokesperson for the governor claims that law firms were hired to challenge the measure and its “legal infirmities.” But as DeSantis continues to go after one of the most powerful companies in Florida, it’s a good reminder that Disney adults don’t mess around.

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