Florida Republicans are trying to change the narrative around their push to end special incentives for Disney by saying they’re protecting free markets, a shift away from what they’ve explicitly said it’s about in the past: retaliation against the company’s support of LGBTQ rights.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seen as a likely 2024 presidential candidate, called on the Florida legislature to end Disney’s special tax district on Tuesday, which has allowed the amusement park to enjoy millions of dollars in incentives since the 1960s. The move came after Disney publicly denounced Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which bars instruction of sexual orientation or gender identity in schools from kindergarten through third grade. The company also announced it would pause campaign donations in the state.
Republicans’ most recent public-facing comments appear to be in the interest of leveling the playing field for other theme parks and ensuring tax dollars be redirected to affordable housing, veteran services, and renovating schools.
But both narratives end with the same result: rescinding decades-old tax incentives to the state’s largest tourist attraction and one of its largest employers in order to own the libs.
A day after DeSantis’s announcement, the Republican-controlled Florida Senate passed a bill that would dissolve Disney’s district in a 23–16 vote. The bill now heads to the state House for a vote slated for Thursday.
The pushback against Disney and LGBTQ rights is just the latest in a broad Republican political strategy that’s centered around culture war fights in classrooms. Republican candidates across the country have pushed parents to engage on issues like critical race theory and mask mandate campaigns.
“Disney has become so pro-gay and are pulling donations to Republicans telling them that they’re going to openly oppose them for fighting the parents' rights in education bill,” one Florida Republican familiar with state House Republicans’ thinking told BuzzFeed News. “They’re basically punishing Disney by removing their special privileges.”
Spencer Roach, a Republican member of Florida’s House of Representatives, was the first lawmaker to publicly pitch ending the Reedy Creek Improvement Act in a March 31 tweet after meeting with fellow legislators to discuss repealing the agreement that allows Disney to act as its own local government.
“If Disney wants to embrace woke ideology, it seems fitting that they should be regulated by Orange County,” he tweeted last month.
But in an interview on Tuesday, he characterized the push to BuzzFeed News as one directed toward parity with other theme parks including Legoland and SeaWorld.
Roach said he had not spoken directly with the governor before the bill was introduced but got assurances from DeSantis's staff that the governor was seriously looking into the idea of supporting the repeal of the Reedy Creek Improvement Act.
“Because Disney has made this unforced political error, it’s presented us with an opportunity where they're politically weak to go out and correct this historic aberration of the free market,” Roach said.
Disney has donated generously to Democrats and Republicans in Florida. Roach, who said he’s not returning the several thousand dollars from Disney subsidiaries he received during his time in office, said the contributions “certainly helped insulate them from having folks take a real close look at Reedy Creek.”
Christina Pushaw, a spokesperson for DeSantis, also pushed back against the “retaliation” narrative suggesting the governor’s motivation stems from wanting to give corporations a level playing field as she listed some of the perks that have been in place for Disney throughout DeSantis’s tenure and for more than 50 years. But still she framed it as an issue Disney started.
“It was unfortunate that Disney decided to wade into a political debate and attempt to undermine a common-sense law, enacted by a duly elected legislature and signed by a duly elected governor, with the support of the vast majority of Floridians,” Pushaw said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “In fact, it was Disney that ‘retaliated’ by publicly vowing to ‘repeal’ or have the law ‘struck down,’” she added.
As for any concerns that the fight between Florida’s government and its largest attraction would hamper recreation, "Florida is doing great with tourism,” Pushaw said, and insisted it’s not limited to Disney.