Florida governor ends ‘corporate kingdom’ of Walt Disney World

Ron DeSantis removes special status from Florida’s largest private employer that had allowed it a wide berth to manage its own affairs.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaks at an outdoor podium
Disney had clashed with Governor Ron DeSantis (pictured) over a law that restricts classroom instruction of gender and sexual orientation in Florida in the United States [File: Lynne Sladky/AP Photo]

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has signed a bill that takes control of a special tax district surrounding Walt Disney World that for half a century allowed Walt Disney Co to operate with a high degree of autonomy.

“The corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” DeSantis said on Monday during a press event at Lake Buena Vista near Orlando, Florida in the US.

State Republicans last year targeted Disney after it publicly clashed with DeSantis, who is widely considered to be running for United States president in 2024, over a law that restricts classroom instruction of gender and sexual orientation, known by its opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” measure.

In March, Disney’s then-Chief Executive Officer Bob Chapek publicly voiced disappointment with the bill limiting LGBTQ discussion in schools, saying he called DeSantis to express concern about the legislation becoming law.

In a move political observers viewed as retaliation for Disney’s view on the “Don’t Say Gay” measure, Florida lawmakers this month passed a bill that DeSantis signed into law and that authorises the governor to appoint five supervisors to oversee traditional municipal services, such as fire protection, public utilities, waste collection and road maintenance, in the region where Disney World operates. The quasi-government entity also has the authority to raise revenue to pay outstanding debt and cover the cost of services.

“Allowing a corporation to control its own government is bad policy, especially when the corporation makes decisions that impact an entire region,” said DeSantis. “This legislation ends Disney’s self-governing status, makes Disney live under the same laws as everybody else, and ensures that Disney pays its debts and fair share of taxes.”

A spokesperson for Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera.

Speakers at the bill-signing ceremony included a parent who had criticised Disney for speaking out against the state’s education bill, saying the company “chose the wrong side of the moral argument”. Another person who identified himself as a longtime Disney theme park employee had taken issue with the company’s policies regarding vaccinations.

Disney World is the largest employer in central Florida, with close to 75,000 employees. It drew 36.2 million visitors in 2021, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.

Disney shares were up 0.4 percent on Monday.

DeSantis, 44, a frequent voice in conservative cultural fights on cable television, is also perhaps the most potent threat to former US President Donald Trump’s effort to win the GOP nomination for the third time.

The Florida governor has not officially announced his run for the US presidency in elections scheduled for 2024 but is widely expected to do so.

With the Tuesday release of his book, The Courage to Be Free, he will aim to introduce himself to voters beyond Florida, having established his political dominance there last fall by winning re-election by more than 19 percentage points.

Last week DeSantis made rare out-of-state trips to New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois, giving speeches highlighting pro-law enforcement policies.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies