Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his allies are ramping up their fight against Walt Disney Co., even as more of the possible Republican presidential candidate’s rivals criticize him for his long battle with the entertainment titan.
DeSantis ripped Disney repeatedly this week over its recent maneuvers to thwart the governor’s efforts to seize some control of the company’s Orlando parks and properties.
“We’ll make sure that we keep them in their pen, one way or another,” DeSantis said of Disney on Wednesday during an event in the early presidential primary state of South Carolina.
The governor, who has not announced his presidential plans but is considered former President Donald Trump‘s top competitor for the 2024 GOP nomination, was promoting his new book, which derides Disney as a “Magic Kingdom of Woke Corporatism.”
Meanwhile, his handpicked board of supervisors overseeing Disney World’s special tax district increased the pressure on Disney. The officials moved Wednesday to regain authority over the property that they say Disney wrongly took away just before they took charge.
The board took that step two days after DeSantis floated a range of possible actions against Disney World, including developing land nearby.
“People have said maybe create a state park, try to do more amusement parks. Someone said another state prison. Who knows?” DeSantis said.
It’s the latest chapter in the grim tale that began more than a year earlier, after Disney opposed the controversial Republican-passed Florida law limiting classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity. That legislation, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics, “should never have been signed” by DeSantis, Disney said in a March 2022 statement.
Disney’s stance sparked a bitter feud. The state’s Republican governor and GOP-held legislature targeted the special tax district that has allowed Disney to essentially govern itself for decades.
DeSantis’ willingness to use his political power to engage in animating cultural fights has made him a rising star in the GOP. But his transition to the national stage, in apparent anticipation of a presidential announcement, has sparked criticism even from some of his fellow Republicans.
Trump, a former DeSantis ally who is now lashing out at the governor on a regular basis, wrote Tuesday that the governor is getting “absolutely destroyed by Disney.”
Republican former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie this week referenced the Disney row while questioning DeSantis’ political skills. “That’s not the guy I want sitting across from” President Xi Jinping of China or Russian President Vladimir Putin “and trying to resolve what’s happening in Ukraine, if you can’t see around a corner [Disney CEO] Bob Iger created for you,” Christie said in a Semafor interview.
GOP New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said Monday on CNN that the battle “convolutes the entire Republican message,” Politico reported.
Those Republicans are either running for president or considered possible candidates, making them DeSantis’ potential rivals. But some polls of the prospective GOP primary field also show DeSantis losing ground to Trump, a trend The New York Times noted last month.
Asked for comment about the Florida board’s latest move and the recent GOP criticism, DeSantis press secretary Bryan Griffin referred to a Tuesday statement accusing Disney of enacting a “legally deficient, 11th hour agreement to preserve their special privileges.”
“That’s an attempt to subvert the will of the people of Florida, and Governor DeSantis will not stand for that,” Griffin said in the statement, which was a response to Christie’s criticism.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District, a local government entity created in 1967, gave Disney regulatory control over public services and other functions in the 25,000-acre area encompassing its Florida parks and resorts. Disney paid millions of dollars annually in taxes levied through Reedy Creek to fund those services, on top of its local tax obligations.
Weeks after Disney denounced the classroom bill, Florida Republicans passed legislation that would dissolve the company’s special designation. DeSantis signed the bill a day later.
The move raised fears that Florida taxpayers in the two counties surrounding Reedy Creek could be burdened with a huge tax bill if Florida revoked Disney’s self-governing status. In a special session in February, the state legislature scrapped that plan, swapping it with a proposal to rename the district and allow DeSantis to appoint its five board members.
But last month, the newly picked board of the governing body — now dubbed the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District — said their predecessors had stripped them of many of their powers on the way out the door.
The former board had approved an agreement in February that ceded developmental power over the district to Disney.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the new board agreed to take up a resolution next week to undo that development deal.
The unanimous move came after a parade of voices, including officials from state agencies and the board’s attorneys, ripped Disney over the dispute.
“The bottom line is that Disney engaged in a caper worthy of Scrooge McDuck to try to evade Florida law. Its efforts are illegal and they will not stand,” said David Thompson, identified as trial counsel for the board.
Thompson and another lawyer, Alan Lawson, argued that the development deal was “null and void,” in part because the old board failed to mail notices about it to affected property owners as required.
Disney did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the board meeting.
(With inputs from CNBC)