Lucy Mends was very nervous during a spring vacation at Disney World in central Florida. At her home in Elkridge, Maryland, the 46-year-old romance writer read about a law approved by Governor Ron DeSantis in 2022 that bans discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in public school classrooms for preschool through third grade.
Mends became more concerned about a series of bills introduced in the current session of the state legislature that would extend the ban to high school students and bar transgender people from changing their birth certificates and receiving transitional care, such as hormone therapy and puberty blockers for minors. “They demonize transgender people and that’s very scary,” she said.
Under pressure from its employees, the Walt Disney Company publicly opposed the so-called Don’t Say Gay Act last year. Furious, DeSantis retaliated by denouncing Disney as “The Magic Kingdom of Awakened Corporatism” and signed a bill in February to take control of a self-governing specialty district near Orlando that the corporation has run since Disney World opened in 1972. .
Anyway, Mends continued her vacation plans at Disney World. Showing solidarity with the company was an important factor. “Spending money at Disney is like contributing to the fight against DeSantis,” Mends said. “A fascist won’t stop them and I strongly support that.”
The ongoing dispute between DeSantis and his state’s second largest employer has escalated in recent days. Disney sued the governor of Florida in Tallahassee federal court in late April for allegedly punishing the company for exercising its First Amendment freedom of expression rights, criticizing DeSantis for last year’s Parental Rights in Education Act. The lawsuit seeks to invalidate the governor’s takeover of a self-governing Disney district after he recently filled a five-member council with allies.
This board, in turn, has defied its own litigation in Orlando State Court designed to assert its control over design and construction decisions for the Disney World Special District, despite a series of last-minute decisions by the previous pro-business board that would have strengthened Disney’s autonomy against the state government.
The final outcome of the legal tug-of-war between DeSantis, who is expected to make an official announcement in the coming weeks as to whether he will seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, and Disney will have major implications for the entire Sunshine state and region, particularly the economy of central Florida. The company pays more than $1 billion in state taxes each year, with the lion’s share of that revenue generated by the sprawling 25,000-acre (10,000-hectare) Disney World theme park complex that employs approximately 65,000 people.
There may have been one potential victim. Due to a $578 million tax credit approved during DeSantis’s first term, Disney planned to move about 2,000 high-paying creative jobs from California to a new regional operations center in Southeast Orlando as early as this year. This major staff move has reportedly been put on hold due to the lack of a specific timetable.
The Guardian’s requests for an interview with a Disney executive or spokesperson went unanswered. The governor’s press secretary rejected a similar request due to what he called “paper bias and agenda.” [which] face the news or the truth.”
But DeSantis has been very vocal about the company ever since then-Disney CEO Robert Chapek publicly expressed his “disappointment” with the passage of the Don’t Say Gay Act in 2022 in his recently published book The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Plan for Revival America, the governor blasted Disney for allegedly “supporting the indoctrination of young students into awake gender identity politics” and boasted about how “things got worse for Disney” while managing DeSantis.
This kind of talk worries many Central Florida residents. First, such rhetoric is inconsistent with the Republican Party’s traditionally pro-business policies and strong opposition to excessive government intervention.
“He’s clearly evolved from a tea party, a small government, a guy’s Heritage Foundation to a more trumpy anti-revival leader,” said Congressman Darren Soto, a Democrat whose ninth district covers part of the Disney World site. “It’s personal vendetta, it attacks anyone who gets in its way, and it’s terrible for the economy of central Florida.”
Some prominent figures in the region’s hospitality industry believe the governor’s various crusades to further restrict abortion rights, scrap tests on African American affairs for advanced high school students, and the establishment of a new law enforcement agency to investigate rare cases of voter fraud are out of place.