DeSantis ratchets up his fight against Disney with promises of more regulation

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Walt Disney World entrance in 2010. photo By Jrobertiko (Denis Adriana Macias) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jim Turner ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Escalating his attacks on Walt Disney Co., Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday announced plans to revoke changes made by the former Reedy Creek Improvement District board and to increase state oversight of the entertainment giant’s theme-park rides.

Also, DeSantis said his hand-picked board to replace the former Reedy Creek leaders will consider how undeveloped Disney land can be used, suggesting the possibility of a state park, workforce housing or a prison.

“They thought that they could create some type of development agreements that would essentially render everything that we did null and void and put them in control in perpetuity for this,” DeSantis said. “Well, that’s not going to work. That’s not going to fly.”

DeSantis’ appearance Monday at the Reedy Creek Administration Building in Lake Buena Vista was the latest move in escalating tensions between DeSantis and the entertainment giant, which is a major financial engine for the state.

The tensions are rooted in Disney last year opposing a controversial state law that restricts instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. DeSantis and Republican lawmakers initially moved to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which the state created in the 1960s and essentially gave Disney control over issues such as land use, fire protection and sewer services that are typically handled by local governments.

But in February, lawmakers passed a DeSantis-backed bill that shifted control away from Disney and allowed DeSantis to appoint a five-member Board of Supervisors for the district. The bill also renamed the district as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

The issue was refueled recently, however, after disclosures that the former Reedy Creek board turned over most of its powers to Disney before DeSantis was able to seat his board.

In a news release Monday, DeSantis said the former board’s “shady tactics” are “riddled with legal deficiencies,” including a failure to provide required notices to property owners.

Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

During an April 3 shareholders’ meeting, Disney CEO Bob Iger criticized DeSantis’ actions as “anti-business and anti-Florida.”

Appearing Monday with DeSantis, Rep. Carolina Amesty, a Windermere Republican whose district includes Disney properties, said it’s time for Disney executives to have a “sober conversation and retake the company from the radical ideologies that have hijacked it.”

“You’re in the business of entertaining children and families,” Amesty said. “You’re not in the business of social re-engineering or promoting radical political ideologies.”

A proposal expected to go before legislative committees next week would require the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to inspect rides and attractions at Disney. The department currently inspects amusement-park rides, except rides at facilities or parks with more than 1,000 employees and who have full-time inspectors on staff.

“Where a person is injured should not determine how the state responds. Everyone should have to play by the same rules,” Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, who accompanied DeSantis at Monday’s event, said.

“This change proposed by the Legislature and the governor makes sense,” Simpson added. “As a businessman and farmer, I have endured meaningless bureaucracy and unnecessary government interference. Fighting back is one of the reasons I ran for office. But there is a legitimate role for the government in public safety and security. I believe this proposal strikes that important balance.”

But other large theme parks in the state aren’t expected to be affected by the changes.

DeSantis, after saying it is “very important that we have uniform applicability of the laws,” said the legislation is expected to apply only to Disney.

“These inspections will be required for amusement parks within special districts,” DeSantis said.

During a meeting Wednesday, the newly appointed board also will consider other changes, including a look at speeding up paying off debts and the role that Disney can play in workforce housing.

“I think you’re going to see a lot of action from the state board’s perspective on Wednesday and then in the ensuing weeks,” DeSantis said. “And I think it’s all about making sure that the vision is made into a reality where this company’s under the law, following the law, paying taxes and honoring the debts and not governing itself.”

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