DeSantis Calls for End of Walt Disney World's Self-Rule

Culture war conservatism leads to less private industry freedom for the pettiest of reasons.


Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced today that he wants the state Legislature to revoke the 50-year-old law that grants Walt Disney World Resort the authority to govern itself.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District, established in 1967, grants Disney the legal authority over and responsibility for 25,000 acres of land in Orange and Osceola counties. This includes planning and zoning authorities, as well as the responsibility to provide police, fire, and utilities in the area.

DeSantis is now in the midst of a political feud with the Disney corporation, whose leaders have spoken out in objection to the passage of Florida's so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill, which limits and even censors discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools.

At the same time, DeSantis and conservative Florida lawmakers have been feuding with social media platforms, which they believe are unfairly deplatforming conservative voices. They responded with a profoundly unconstitutional bill that would prohibit large social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook from deplatforming political candidates. At the last minute, these lawmakers included a special carve-out exempting any company that owns a theme park in Florida from these rules. That includes Disney, which also happens to be a massive media company with many online platforms that would otherwise be covered.

When this bill was challenged in federal court, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle agreed with the plaintiffs that the bill enforces content-based discrimination that violates the First Amendment rights of the tech companies and is pre-empted by federal law. Hinkle put an injunction in place stopping the law from being enforced.

In the order, Hinkle takes note of the theme park exception as evidence of its discriminatory enforcement. The judge also noted many constitutional flaws with the bill besides the carve-out. Nevertheless, in his proclamation calling for this special session to go after Disney, DeSantis suggests that the carve-out is the only problem found with the law and is severable from the underlying legislation. The proclamation notes, "[T]he Legislature should make clear that Florida intends to continue to protect consumers from the arbitrary and inconsistent censorship of social media platforms in a viewpoint-neutral manner…."

By calling for the revocation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District while making note of the special exemption that the Republicans themselves gave Disney in the first place, DeSantis leans into using his office in an overt attempt to punish political opponents in the private sphere.

It may be good for culture war politicking, but one does have to consider whether Orange and Osceola counties are even interested in taking responsibility for providing mandatory public services to the massive Disney resort empire. Disney is the biggest employer within the two counties and most certainly their largest source of tangential and indirect tax revenue through tourism. Right now Disney—through Reedy Creek—actually contracts with the Orange County Sheriff's Office for millions each year ($15.8 million to outside law enforcement agencies in FY 2017) for protection. That's a benefit to the counties that could end up becoming an expense.

It's a bit simplistic to think that giving Walt Disney World Resort the power of self-rule is some sort of gift or privilege. That the park, given self-governance, has managed to maintain itself as a generally safe and stable environment that people flock to from across the world is a pretty good indication that the company knows what it's doing.

Any contention that DeSantis is eliminating some sort of "special treatment" for Disney comes with it the perhaps mistaken assumption that the two counties suddenly in charge of all of this infrastructure will somehow make the park better and not worse. In reality, putting Disney parks at the mercy of two different counties with different laws will be a huge mess for everybody involved, and that's the point. It's not about what's fair or what's best for the citizens in the area. It's about punishing political foes and centralizing government power (a very nonconservative approach) to do so.