DeSantis’ hand-picked Walt Disney World oversight board meets for the first time

Reuters | March 8, 2023

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By Dawn Chmielewski

(Reuters) – A new board controlling Walt Disney World’s special taxing district in Florida will meet for the first time on Wednesday, as Governor Ron DeSantis’ hand-picked group gets ready to end the entertainment giant’s “corporate kingdom.”

What that entails is not clear. Nothing in the language of the legislation creating the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District gives the board of supervisors authority to direct Walt Disney Co’s content.

Nevertheless, Republican DeSantis has spoken out against the media company’s “woke agenda.”

“The District board members are now in place and will be examining all of the needed actions to get back on track,” Bryan Griffin, a spokesman for the governor, said on Tuesday.

Legislators in Florida passed a bill in February giving DeSantis effective control over a board that oversees municipal services and development in a special district that encompasses Walt Disney World resort.

State Republicans last year targeted Disney after it publicly clashed with DeSantis, who is widely considered a 2024 presidential candidate, over a law that restricts classroom instruction of gender and sexual orientation.

Disney’s then-chief executive officer, Bob Chapek, publicly voiced disappointment with the measure, saying he called DeSantis to express concern about it becoming law.

In a move political observers viewed as retaliation for Disney’s criticism of the Parental Rights in Education Act, Florida lawmakers passed legislation that ended Disney’s virtual autonomy in developing 25,000 acres in central Florida where its theme parks are located.

The bill, which DeSantis signed into law in February, authorizes the governor to appoint five supervisors to operate the quasi-government entity, overseeing municipal services, such as fire protection, public utilities, waste collection and road maintenance. It also can raise revenue to pay outstanding debt and cover the cost of services.

But DeSantis’ agenda reaches beyond operational minutiae. “Leaders must stand up and fight back when big corporations make the mistake, as Disney did, of using their economic might to advance a political agenda,” DeSantis wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece. “We are making Florida the state where woke goes to die.”

At the bill signing, DeSantis hinted at his cultural concerns, criticizing Disney for allegedly injecting “a lot of sexuality into the programming for young kids.” He did not offer specifics.

One Florida resident who spoke at the signing ceremony echoed that sentiment, saying Disney had “crossed the line” when it opposed Florida’s education law, which critics refer to as the “Don’t Say Gay” measure.

“Disney has stepped into a ring with mama bears, and that is not a fight they will win,” said Mandy Shafer. “My hope is that Walt Disney’s vision will be restored and the woke ideologies will be removed from Disney forever.”

One of the five supervisors appointed to the oversight board, Bridget Ziegler, is a Sarasota School Board member and self-described parental rights advocate, who helped pave the way for the Parental Rights in Education Act. She also criticized Disney last fall when it asked a local high school to cover a logo of the school’s Native American mascot to march on Main Street. The band elected not to perform.

“Shameful to see Disney continue to use children as pawns to advance their WOKE political agenda,” Ziegler tweeted. “Kudos to staff for not kowtowing to their demands.”

Ziegler could not be reached for comment.

Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney parks, issued a statement on Tuesday expressing hope that “the new board will share our commitment to helping the local economy continue to flourish and support the ongoing growth of the resort and Florida’s tourism industry.”

(Reporting by Dawn Chmielewski in Los Angeles; Editing by Matthew Lewis)