Florida insiders react with shock, amusement, and dread after Disney outmaneuvers DeSantis to keep most of its power

  • Disney and DeSantis have entered into another round of feuding.

  • Disney outmaneuvered the governor, but he has warned that there's more to come.

  • The turn of events amused insiders, but crossing DeSantis is considered fraught.

The battle over the Magic Kingdom has entered a new chapter.

It appears Walt Disney World won't be losing power over its land after all — at least not yet — following a high-profile battle with Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

More than a month after DeSantis appointed a board to control the resort and theme park's decision-making, a report by the Orlando Sentinel revealed that Disney lawyers wrote in an arrangement that keeps the company in power of its land virtually in perpetuity.

Despite Disney's formidable lobbying track record, the quiet arrangement to keep its power astonished and amused many political insiders.

"This must have really been ticklish for those attorneys to wonder when it was going to be discovered," Richard Foglesong, the author of the book "Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando," told Insider. "I bet there were a lot of 'tee hee hee' moments among them."

DeSantis made an example of Disney after the company said it would work to repeal the Parental Rights in Education Act, the legislation that Democrats and LGBTQ-rights groups have derided as the "Don't Say Gay" bill because it limits classroom instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation.

The governor tried to unravel Disney's special privileges that many other businesses, including rival theme parks such as Sea World and Universal Studios, don't have. While those parks must run their plans by zoning commissions or building-inspection departments, Disney doesn't have to. This makes their operations run more efficiently, saving them time and money, Foglesong explained.

But DeSantis' highly publicized plan seems to have collapsed.

"It was a pretty brilliant move by the outgoing board to basically take all the power away," one Florida-based lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Insider. "Everybody that I talked to about it kind of chuckled about it. They thought it was funny."

Dozens of lobbyists didn't respond to Insider's requests for interviews or declined to comment, and a couple expressed concerns about discussing the DeSantis-Disney feud at all, out of fear of retaliation over a subject that has become highly charged.

Besides having an in-house government-relations team, Disney also contracts with several lobbying firms — including The Southern Group, GrayRobinson, and Vogel Group. Such firms have contracts with numerous other clients that have business before the governor, according to the state's lobbying-disclosure database.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis got married at Disney World in 2009.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis got married at Disney World in 2009.Joe Raedle/Getty Images and AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

A legal battle is kicking off

It's not yet clear how DeSantis might try to punish Disney for bypassing what has become a central talking point for the governor to show that he's unafraid to go up against powerful corporations who publicly disagree with his policies.

The resort and theme park has long been a powerhouse in the Sunshine State, bringing tax dollars, tourists, and jobs to central Florida. Foglesong described Disney's fight with DeSantis as the biggest hurdle the company has ever faced in Florida, saying, "If 10 is the highest, this is a 10."

Untangling the legalities of the dispute could take years and become an expensive endeavor, the Orlando Sentinel reported. Kathleen Passidomo, the president of the Florida Senate, told reporters Thursday evening that she didn't expect the legislature to make any changes to the law in the near term.

"We're going to take a look at it," she said. "I'm sure to see what they actually did."

The governor's appointees to the board overseeing Disney have said they're consulting with four different law firms, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Taryn Fenske, the spokesperson for the governor, said the agreement Disney brokered "may have significant legal infirmities that would render the contracts void as a matter of law."

But the matter appears far from settled, and it's not clear how DeSantis will retaliate a third time. The governor is known for using the arm of the state to achieve his goals in ways that other conservatives have criticized. Among those critics is Mike Pence, who, like DeSantis, is a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate.

While doing a book tour in Georgia on Thursday, DeSantis vowed "there's more to come" regarding the Disney feud. Shortly after, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody demanded texts and emails about the February 8 meeting that sealed the deal for Disney to retain control over much of its land.

"Who knows what they might come up with creatively to make Disney's life miserable?" Aubrey Jewett, a political-science professor at the University of Central Florida who coauthored the book "Politics in Florida," told Insider.

"If I have seen anything from this governor and the Republican legislature, it's that they go after perceived enemies, and they go after them in a big way," he said. "I won't be surprised if other things happen."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd at Adventure Outdoors gun store on March 30, 2023, in Smyrna, Georgia.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd at Adventure Outdoors gun store on March 30, 2023, in Smyrna, Georgia.John Bazemore/AP Photo

Disney dustup came as Trump was facing indictment

DeSantis has often invoked his battle with Disney when doing appearances across the US to promote his new book, "The Courage to Be Free: Florida's Blueprint for America's Revival." It's a story that has thrilled supporters, who boo at the mention of Disney's name and laugh as DeSantis scoffs over the irony that, almost 14 years ago, he married his wife, Casey DeSantis, at Disney World.

The promotional book tour is widely viewed as a soft campaign to lay the groundwork for an official 2024 presidential run, one that would pit DeSantis against former President Donald Trump.

In recent weeks, the governor has taken a plunge in national polling about a hypothetical 2024 matchup while Trump has expanded his lead. The former president has benefited from the rally around GOP support related to his indictment by the Manhattan district attorney, and has also relentlessly criticized DeSantis.

To many observers, DeSantis had appeared unstoppable, notching numerous political wins in Florida and getting the type of donor treatment political frontrunners typically enjoy.

"It shows that maybe he's not invincible," Jewett said of DeSantis' recent struggles. "He has and is going to make political mistakes. It weakens him, in the short run."

DeSantis has worked with the legislature twice to retaliate against Disney. First he signed a bill into law in April 2022 to dissolve the Reedy Creek district. But when it was revealed the measure could have resulted in residents taking on a sizeable amount of debt through higher taxes, the legislature sent DeSantis a new bill in February 2023 during a special session that would allow the governor to appoint a board to control the district.

But before that happened, Disney quietly brokered the agreement to maintain control. The company told Insider in a statement that it was "discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums." In what also appeared to be a slight, Disney World announced it would host the Out & Equal Workplace Summit in September, billing it as the "largest LGBTQ+ conference in the world."

Before this week, Democratic state lawmakers predicted Disney would sue and then ride out DeSantis' time in Tallahassee. Jewett expected Disney to let the matter go and to try to repair the relationship.

"In retrospect, I feel like I should have expected that Disney was going to do something and that they wouldn't just let 50 years of control go," Jewett said.

Not only did it not let go of control, but the company tapped into its flair for the dramatic. To win this round, it invoked an obscure property law about King Charles III.

Using a royal clause was all very Disney, Foglesong said.

"They can't go to the mat in a mean kind of way," he said. "They have to be entertaining, and I think they will be. Because this is not just a legal fight, it's about public relations, too."

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