A split image with a Mickey Mouse mascot on the left and Ron DeSantis on the right

Ron DeSantis Is Threatening To Build a Prison Next to Disney World

The Walt Disney Company has always deliberately avoided particularly touchy subjects. Whether it’s politics or social justice, Disney works very hard to maintain an impeachable, squeaky-clean brand image the won’t upset its many avidly loyal park goers (and investors). So, it’s no surprise that Disney’s very public and very persistent feud with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has continued to make headlines. In the two-plus years of their ongoing battle, there’s been constant, nonstop media coverage and speculation about how a victory on either side might impact the guest experience in the parks.

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As the conflict continues to escalate, we thought it might be helpful to create a timeline of Disney’s beef with Governor Ron DeSantis.

Summer 2021: COVID-19, mask mandates, and the beginning of the beef

Though it’s entirely possible DeSantis had his gripes with the Walt Disney Company for some time now, the DeSantis/Disney beef first went public over the summer of 2021, when the COVID-19 pandemic was still in full swing. As many will recall, Disney shut down the theme parks for a solid few months in the early days of the pandemic, but once they reopened, the company imposed strict masking mandates for the health and safety of guests and cast members. Disney also eventually required all cast members to be fully vaccinated. Of course, “mask mandates” are two of DeSantis’ least favorite words. In response, DeSantis penned a number of bills that would fine companies (like Disney) who mandated vaccinations before employees could return to work, marking the first time DeSantis took direct public action against the Walt Disney Company.

2022 “Don’t Say Gay” bill scuffle

It’s not the mask and vaccine requirements that Disney and DeSantis are most famous for feuding over: it’s the controversial Parental Rights in Education Act which DeSantis’ Republican-led government passed in February 2022. The act, known colloquially as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, barred Florida schools from teaching about LGBTQ+ issues in kindergarten through third grade. The bill could potentially be interpreted for any grade school age, and also includes provisions for parents to sue teachers for potentially discussing queer issues in the classroom—a startling attack on LGBTQ+ rights.

A conservative lawmaker passing anti-queer legislation is nothing new, but the Disney of it all comes into play when then-CEO Bob Chapek (not to be confused with Bob Iger, his predecessor and successor) began making it clear he was against the bill. At first, this was just through internal memos: Chapek issued a statement which read, “I want to be crystal clear: I and the entire leadership team unequivocally stand in support of our LGBTQ+ employees, their families, and their communities. And we are committed to creating a more inclusive company—and world … and because this struggle is much bigger than any one bill in any one state, I believe the best way for our company to bring about lasting change is through the inspiring content we produce, the welcoming culture we create, and the diverse community organizations we support.”

A few days later, the bill passed. After receiving criticism for the lack of an official public statement, Chapek finally addressed the public at a shareholder meeting, during which he unequivocally condemned the bill. As previously mentioned, Disney is somewhat notorious for attempting to remain neutral in controversial political issues, so when the company’s CEO came out directly against DeSantis and in support of the nation’s queer youth, it was relatively shocking.

Chapek told shareholders at the meeting, “I called Governor DeSantis this morning to express our disappointment and concern that if the legislation becomes law it could be used to target [LGBTQ+] kids and families. The governor heard our concerns. He agreed to meet with me and LGBTQ+ members of our senior team in Florida to discuss ways to address that. Certainly the outcome in Florida was not what many of us were hoping for—especially our LGBTQ+ employees. And unfortunately legislation targeting their communities is being considered in many other states, which means this fight will go on.”

Days later, DeSantis fired back at Chapek with a response to his statement at the shareholder meeting, taking stabs at Disney’s connections to China and their history of kid-friendly media content: “Companies that have made a fortune catering to families should understand that parents don’t want this injected into their kids’ kindergarten classroom. Our policies will be based on the best interest of Florida citizens, not [on] the musing of woke corporations.”

After “Don’t Say Gay” and the trouble over Reedy Creek

After that, Disney issued yet another statement opposing the bill, and this time, DeSantis wasn’t content to simply let it stand. The company’s second, harsher statement, made it explicitly clear that Disney wanted to take express action against the bill, and would work for it to be repealed: “Florida’s HB 1557, also known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, should never have passed and should never have been signed into law … Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that.” Days after that, DeSantis told the media that Disney’s statement “crossed a line,” and began looking for a way to get back at them. That’s where the Reedy Creek Improvement District enters the picture.

Wait, what is Reedy Creek?

A short Disney history lesson: When Walt Disney & Co. built Walt Disney World in Florida, they established a self-governing jurisdictional and special taxing district known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The nitty gritty of the agreement shakes down to this: Disney is effectively able to own and operate Disney World and the land it’s on like their own government; from taxes to emergency services and water, Disney internally regulates it all, and it has nothing to do with the state or public works of Florida. This mostly makes it easier for Disney to get things done more quickly and efficiently, without having to navigate as much government or municipal red tape whenever they want to build a new ride or hotel, or make changes to their water systems.

So, if you’re Governor Ron DeSantis and you’re looking for a way to cause trouble for Disney that’s within your purview as governor, the obvious choice, of course, would be threatening to dissolve Disney’s special governing/tax district. And that’s exactly what DeSantis did (without acknowledging it as a swipe back at Disney, of course). On potentially taking action against Reedy Creek, DeSantis initially said, “I would not say that that’d be retaliatory … [T]here are certain entities that have exerted a lot of influence through corporate means to generate special privileges in the law … I don’t think we should have special privileges in the law at all.”

What’s happening with Reedy Creek now?

After DeSantis publicly set his sights on Reedy Creek, the Walt Disney Company and the DeSantis-led state legislation began scuffling back and forth over a potential dissolution of the district. Over the course of a few days (from April 19-April 22), a bill was passed by the Senate and the House, and signed by DeSantis, and that was that—except, not quite. Of course, Disney wouldn’t simply let their special tax district go without a fight; despite the fact that the dissolution of the district has already passed, it isn’t as cut-and-dry as Disney taking the loss and calling it a day.

For starters, the bill doesn’t flat-out dissolve the district: it renames it, restructures it, and puts power (at face value) back in the hands of the government. Instead of Reedy Creek, it will now be called the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, and DeSantis will be responsible for appointing all five supervising board members. It’s crucial to note, though, that those board members must be approved by the Florida senate, which means that if Disney can successfully throw their weight around, they may be able to secure appointments who will be favorable to the company’s interests.

The latest twist in the DeSantis vs. Disney scuffle is the news that Disney wrote a loophole for itself regarding the district board. Apparently, before formally losing control of the district, Disney was able to write in a clause for itself that granted the company “prior review and comment” before any changes could be made to properties in the district. Somewhat hilariously, this clause—a rare “royal lives” clause—is in effect until “until 21 years after the death of the last surviving descendants of King Charles III, King of England.”

In response to being thwarted yet again, DeSantis’ most recent move is threatening to build a prison next to Disney, musing to the media at a press conference, “Who knows? I just think that the possibilities are endless.”

(featured image: Kent Phillips, Walt Disney World Resort / Chris duMond, Getty Images)

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Lauren Coates
Lauren Coates (she/her)is a freelance film/tv critic and entertainment journalist, who has been working in digital media since 2019. Besides writing at The Mary Sue, her other bylines include Nerdist, Paste, RogerEbert, and The Playlist. In addition to all things sci-fi and horror, she has particular interest in queer and female-led stories. When she's not writing, she's exploring Chicago, binge-watching Star Trek, or planning her next trip to the Disney parks. You can follow her on twitter @laurenjcoates