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The battle for control in Florida

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WORLD Radio - The battle for control in Florida

At issue in the Disney and DeSantis conflict are free speech, government accountability, and business integrity


Cars drive under a sign greeting visitors near the entrance to Walt Disney World, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The Walt Disney Co. is announcing plans to lay off 4,000 more employees largely due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. AP Photo/John Raoux, File

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Up next: the empire strikes back in Florida.

Disney last week sued Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, accusing him of weaponizing government power against Disney.

The company said the governor was retaliating against it for publicly opposing a parental rights law after pressure from LGBT groups.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: The governor and GOP lawmakers then replaced a Disney-appointed board that supervised theme park development with a state-appointed oversight board.

At the 11th hour, the Disney-controlled board signed an agreement granting the company almost-complete control for decades to come rendering the incoming overseers powerless.

The new board called the agreement illegal self-dealing and voided the contract.

Disney filed its lawsuit minutes later, and on Monday, the oversight board countersued in state court.

BROWN: What’s behind this ongoing conflict? In some ways, it really comes down to control.

Dr. Rick Foglesong is Professor Emeritus at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. He says Disney’s relationship with Florida is similar to Vatican City in Italy, a state within a state.

RICK FOGLESONG: The Disney company didn't like having to depend upon the City of Anaheim to provide public services at DisneyLand. So when they came here to Florida, they wanted a different type arrangement. And because Florida was so desirous of having Disney, they were willing to give the Disney company essentially, anything that they wanted. And one of those things was the right to regulate itself, but also the right to provide public services, streets, roads, things of that nature.

Disney is not the only organization that Florida has granted special self-governing powers, but it is certainly the most powerful. Back in 2001, Dr. Foglesong wrote a book about the relationship between Disney and Orlando called Married to the Mouse.

FOGLESONG: And in that book, I talked about special privileges that Disney has and suggested that they were unfair, and that they ought to be reconsidered. That never happened. No elected official in the state of Florida ever picked up on the analysis from my book saying that Disney had privileges not enjoyed by other amusement parks, until now, when Governor DeSantis took after the Disney company. And that was only when the Disney company challenged the parental rights and education bill adopted by the Florida Legislature, which took away from public schools, the ability to teach on the topic of sexuality and gender identity.

REICHARD: So what’s at the core of this conflict? A company’s free speech, or government oversight and accountability? World’s Legal reporter Steve West says it’s a mix of both.

STEVE WEST: Governor DeSantis has certainly made statements that indicate that this was prompted by Disney's entering the fray over the parental rights in education bill. And yet while there are other special districts around the state set up by the legislature, Disney's situation, you know, the size of this district and its degree of control over it is really unrivaled. So while the company's political activism may have prompted action, there are legitimate concerns over investing a company with the power that Disney has.

For now, the timeline for these lawsuits getting through the federal and state courts isn’t known. But Steve West says that the same interests that led Disney and Florida to make the original deal back in 1967 will likely prevail.

WEST: I really think there's a good possibility that some kind of resolution will be reached, Governor DeSantis likely feels that there's no big downside to this for him politically, Disney's not going anywhere. It has a massive investment in the Orlando area. What they're looking for is control so they can have some certainty as they make substantial investments in that area. They likely will have less control in the future. Both the governor and Disney have good reasons to ultimately work this out. Disney pays a lot of taxes and employs a lot of people as I believe that the state's largest employer, so there's a lot of reasons to work this out.

But the larger issue is whether Disney knows its audience well enough. It needs to hear from shareholders concerned about its foray into progressive gender ideology and its films and on controversial political issues like this one. So for corporations, the bottom line is the bottom line.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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