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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Florida Governor’s Bid to Punish Walt Disney World Gains Steam

https://ift.tt/ke0dPO6 Gov. Ron DeSantis’ effort to strip the Walt Disney Co. of its long-held right to self-govern the land where it has built a large complex of theme parks and hotels came closer to completion this week, as state legislators began the process of approving a bill that would finalize the changes.

The move is widely seen as an effort by DeSantis to punish the entertainment conglomerate for its public opposition, last year, to a state law limiting the degree to which schools can instruct students about issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity. The measure is commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

“This is obviously now going to be controlled by the state of Florida, which is no longer self-governing for them,” DeSantis said in a press conference Wednesday. “So, there’s a new sheriff in town and that’s just the way it’s going to be.”

Disney is widely expected to sue the state of Florida if the bill is passed and DeSantis signs it, meaning that the controversy could continue for some time.

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New name, new government

The land that is the subject of the bill is called the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), a 101-square-kilometer region in Orange and Osceola counties that was created in 1967 at the request of Disney, which was laying plans for a new theme park there.

Since then, the company has built a complex of four theme parks, two water parks and dozens of hotels, restaurants and other entertainment venues that attract tens of millions of visitors every year and employ more than 75,000 people.

Since 1967, the RCID has been managed by a board, the members of which are appointed by Disney. The board has all the authorities that a county-level government would possess, including the ability to levy taxes and incur debt. It also manages police, fire and emergency services, roadways, the electrical and sewer systems, and handles an array of other responsibilities that a local government typically undertakes.

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Crucially, the RCID was created to be exempt from numerous state regulations, including building codes and land use rules.

Under the bill moving through the legislature, the RCID would be renamed the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. The board currently governing the RCID would be replaced by a five-person board, all members of which would be appointed by the governor.

Disney, however, would remain responsible for the debt taken on by the district, in the form of more than $1 billion in bonds. When legislators first proposed abolishing the RCID, some experts warned that the district’s debts would devolve onto the taxpayers of Orange and Osceola counties. The bill making its way through the House makes it clear that Disney, through taxes collected by the new governmental entity, will service the debt.

Future unclear

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Whether the change in governance of the land on which the Disney theme parks operate will translate into actual changes at the company’s attractions remains unclear.

Richard Foglesong, an emeritus professor at Rollins College in Florida and author of the 2003 book Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando, told VOA that DeSantis and his fellow Republicans in the legislature have not articulated a plan to change the way Disney operates in the state, primarily because the impetus behind the change had little to do with the theme parks themselves.

“This started because the governor wanted to punish Disney for coming out against his ‘Don’t Say Gay’ legislation,” Foglesong said. “It didn’t start with complaints about how Disney was using its special powers.”

Foglesong said that whether the board will attempt to reach into the day-to-day operations of the park will have much to do with the composition of the board that DeSantis appoints.

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One factor raising some concern, he said, is a provision in the proposed bill that would bar anyone who has worked in the theme park industry or the entertainment industry more broadly within the past three years from serving on the new board.

“That raises the question whether the board is going to have the expertise to run the park,” he said. “But it also raises the question of whether they’re going to continue the culture war against Disney.”

War on ‘woke’

DeSantis is widely expected to run for president, perhaps challenging former President Donald Trump for the Republican nomination, in 2024. His fight against Disney is just one example of his battle against what he describes as “woke ideology,” which he has been using to raise his profile on the national stage.

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There is no clear definition of “woke ideology,” but DeSantis has used the term to attack academic programs that advocate broad acceptance of LGBTQ people and those who teach that there is a problem of systemic racism in the U.S. He has accused the latter of teaching young people to “hate America” and of wrongly forcing white children to feel guilt for historic wrongs, such as slavery.

While many progressives see the furor surrounding “woke ideology” as engineered by social conservatives for political gain, DeSantis supporters are backing the governor’s stance against Disney wholeheartedly.

“Disney executives thought they could go into political overdrive with no repercussions. But they were wrong and Disney has been losing to Ron DeSantis ever since,” Gabriel Llanes, executive director of Ready for Ron, a political action committee backing DeSantis for president, said in a statement emailed to VOA.

“As long as Disney tries to play the ‘woke’ game, DeSantis should strip the company of any special privileges it once had and stand up for the tens of millions of Floridians who are sick and tired of woke politics,” Llanes wrote. “While corporate elites pander to the radical Left, DeSantis continues to be a conservative champion of the people.”

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In a statement issued to the media, Disney World President Jeff Vahle said, “We are monitoring the progression of the draft legislation, which is complex given the long history of the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

“Disney works under a number of different models and jurisdictions around the world, and regardless of the outcome, we remain committed to providing the highest-quality experience for the millions of guests who visit each year,” Vahle said.

Opposing voice in Legislature

State Representative Anna Eskamani, a Democrat whose legislative district includes the area around Walt Disney World, has been a vocal critic of DeSantis’ battle with the entertainment conglomerate, accusing the governor of launching a “power grab.”

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Eskamani offered several amendments to the bill moving through the Florida House, all of which are likely to fail. One would expand the board overseeing the district to make three local mayors and one local county official ex officio members.

She also offered an amendment to change the new name of the district from the proposed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District to “Florida’s Attempt to Silence Critical and Independent Speech and Thought,” which would carry the acronym “FASCIST.”

Author webdesk@voanews.com (Rob Garver)
Source : VOA

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