Ron DeSantis takes control of Disney World amid Don’t Say Gay row: ‘There’s a new sheriff in town’

Ron Desantis

Florida governor Ron DeSantis has taken control of Disney’s self-governing district – which it uses to run its theme parks – in an apparent punishment for opposing his hateful Don’t Say Gay law. 

The Republican politician, who is tipped to be GOP’s frontrunner for the 2024 election, signed a bill which strips the mass media and entertainment conglomerate of unique powers over the infrastructure of its sprawling grounds. 

Earlier this month both houses of the Florida state legislature backed the change in state law, giving DeSantis the power to appoint the members of the board that oversees the development of the Walt Disney World Resort.

The Happiest Place on Earth held the special powers for more than half a century over the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which gave it control over utilities as well as its own police and fire department.

Disney claims the unique powers have saved Florida taxpayers millions of dollars annually. 

By signing the bill, the 43 sq miles (111 sq km) property which attracts millions of visitors a year is now subject to oversight by DeSantis’ Republican-led legislature.

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“Today, the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” Ron DeSantis said on Monday at a bill signing ceremony in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, near Walt Disney World.

“There’s a new sheriff in town and accountability will be the order of the day.”

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Explaining his move, the governor said: “Since the 1960s, they’ve enjoyed privileges unlike any company or individual in the state of Florida has ever enjoyed.

“They had exemptions from laws that everyone else had to follow. They were able to get huge amounts of benefits without paying their fair share of taxes.

“How do you give one theme park its own government and then treat all of the other theme parks differently?

“So we believe that that was not good policy. We believe that being joined at the hip with this one California-based company was not something that was justifiable or sustainable.”

A five-member board appointed by the state will now be responsible for externally overseeing area and ensuring Disney complies with state regulations it has not be privy to before, including building and fire prevention codes. 

As reported by the BBC, appointments to the new board including Martin Garcia – a Tampa lawyer and Republican donor whose firm contributed $50,000 (£41,467) to DeSantis’ re-election campaign – and Bridget Ziegler, a Sarasota County School Board member who was a co-founder of the conservative organisation Moms for Liberty. 

“They will be in charge during that board meeting, so buckle up,” Ron DeSantis said of the first meeting which is slated to take place next week. 

Disney in Florida (Unsplash)

The frosty relationship between right-wing DeSantis and the House of Mouse arose in March 2022 when he signed the officially titled “Parental Rights in Education” bill into a effect. 

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The legislation, dubbed a Don’t Say Gay-style bill, barred topics of gender identity and sexual orientation being taught or discussed in kindergarten to third-grade classes, spanning the ages of about five to nine.

Disney’s chief executive at the time, Bob Chapek, came out against the changes after facing criticism from employees for his silence on the issue.  

In a statement released at the time, Disney wrote it was “dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Florida and across the country”. 

This threw the corporation into the heart of America’s anti-LGBTQ+ culture war and on the wrong side of DeSantis’ policies. 

On Monday, there was also the suggestion from Ron DeSantis that the newly appointed oversight board could push for a say in Disney’s content, if the company wishes to keep its home base in the state. 

“When you lose your way, you gotta have people that are going to tell you the truth,” the governor said, “All these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate.”

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