Guest Editorials, Opinion

Disney strips DeSantis of his fairytale ending

Gov. Ron DeSantis has spent months boasting about his victory over a “woke” corporation after demanding the state Legislature yank the Reedy Creek Improvement District from Walt Disney Co.’s control. 

Clearly, the governor thought he’d written the perfect fairytale and cast himself as the hero — only to discover that Disney executives flipped the script. 

Before it was infested with the governor’s band of political buddies, the Reedy Creek board signed binding contracts that transfer most of the control of district-owned facilities and future development back into Disney’s hands and ban the district from using any Disney trademarks. Now the district, renamed the “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District,” appears to be just a payroll, a bundle of debt and tax levies that probably can’t be disturbed. 

The governor’s response is classic DeSantis. He wants to waste some of that money on a small army of expensive attorneys in an effort to unwind those agreements. In other words, DeSantis’ plan for the district he seized is to take tax money from Disney and use it to sue Disney, in an attempt to circumvent Disney’s control over land Disney owns. (We haven’t even gotten to the role of Princess Lilibet. What’s a Disney story without a princess?)  

How this spat started: During a special session of the Florida Legislature, Rep. Randy Fine introduced a sneak attack to abolish the Reedy Creek district. It was an apparent attempt to punish Disney executives for mild, belated criticism of DeSantis-backed bills, including attacks on diversity training and the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill.  

Critics were quick to point out that there were a few reasons not to straight-up abolish the district. Or a billion: The district, created more than 50 years ago to give the company more control over its own permitting and planning, now carries about $1 billion in bond debt. 

Many have been uneasy about the power that the Reedy Creek district allows Disney to wield, or the untold magnitude of tax payments it’s avoided over the years by taking advantage of its ability to issue government bonds.  But there’s no doubt that the company backed its power with its own cash.  Under the first 2022 legislation that would have abolished the board outright, that tax burden and bond debt could have transferred to Orange and Osceola taxpayers. 

Without so much as an “oops, my bad,” DeSantis’ minions wrote another secret plan. During a special session in December, lawmakers obediently adopted it. The new legislation took few powers away from the district — but did wrest control from company hands and declared that DeSantis had sole authority to appoint the district’s board. 

Unfortunately, those high-priced lawyers and DeSantis’ own staff apparently didn’t bother to pay attention to the agreements the old Reedy Creek board signed off on in the meetings before the state Legislature approved the governor’s hotheaded demands.  

As members of those high-priced law firms explained, the old board enacted agreements that transfer most of the control back to the company. There’s also a contract that restricts the district from using any Disney trademarks or changing design aspects of any district-owned properties.  

There’s even a hidden Mickey: The restrictive covenants (a contract between the district and Disney) don’t expire until “21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, king of England living as of the date of this declaration,” a legal (yet delightful) maneuver to protect it against challenges. That’s where Lilibet, the daughter of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, comes into play: She turns two in June. And  Windsors tend to live a very long time.  

DeSantis should take some advice from Queen Elsa: Let. It. Go. 

This editorial first appeared in the Orlando Sentinel. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.