Records show DeSantis plotted more punishment for Disney
But the governor and Legislature abandoned the plan — which would have also disturbed another big campaign donor.
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Just before 9 p.m. on a Friday night late in this year’s session of the Florida Legislature, a Republican member of the House of Representatives suddenly introduced a measure taking aim at the theme-park industry.
The eleventh-hour amendment would have given state regulators the power to conduct ride inspections at Florida’s biggest theme parks — and stripped them of a longstanding carveout in state law that exempts a few industry giants from having to abide by the same ride-safety rules as smaller attractions.
The measure was filed by Rep. Lawrence McClure, a Republican from near Tampa. But records show McClure got the idea from someone else: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the soon-to-announce presidential candidate who was searching for ways to escalate a personal feud with the Walt Disney Co. that DeSantis has used to draw national attention to himself.
An email obtained in a public-records request request shows that an aide to DeSantis sent the precise language for the amendment to McClure’s office just a few hours before McClure filed it.
Now, nothing ever come of this: McClure quietly withdrew the amendment less than 24 hours later. He presumably did so with the governor’s blessing, since DeSantis never said peep about it in public. (Both the Governor’s Office and McClure declined to answer any questions about this.)
But the episode reveals a few important points about DeSantis’ nearly two-year-long crusade against Disney, which began after the company criticized an anti-LBGTQ+ law that DeSantis signed in March 2022 and cut off campaign contributions to politicians in Florida.
First, it shows how DeSantis and his staff try to cover their tracks.
The DeSantis aide who sent the proposed amendment to McClure’s office didn’t say anything in the email that might betray what it was about. He provided the language in the form of a scanned image of a hard copy that had been highlighted by hand. And the attachment was identified only by what appears to be an automated filename assigned to it by the scanner.
It's the sort of email someone might send when they’re trying to make sure it won’t get picked up in a future electronic keyword search — like the kind that gets conducted in response to a public-records request or as part of discovery during litigation.
This email only turned up in one of Seeking Rents’ public-records requests because the request sought all communications between certain staffers in the Governor’s Office and the Florida House of Representatives during the 2023 session — rather than only emails related to specific topics.
(Note that Disney, which is now suing DeSantis, recently accused some of the governor’s political appointees of dragging their feet on discovery.)
Second, the exchange is also another example of DeSantis’ willingness to burn millions in taxpayer money trying to squeeze Disney.
In addition to the proposed amendment, the email from the governor’s office also included a request for another $2.5 million in public money — including another $1 million to spend on lawyers, on top of the millions the Legislature has already given him.
Third, this illustrates the limit of how far DeSantis — or at least the Florida Legislature — is willing to go when it comes to punishing Disney.
Because the proposal the Governor’s Office sent McClure — the one that McClure immediately filed but then quickly withdrew — would have affected all of Florida’s big theme parks.
Yes, it would have taken away Disney’s exemption from ride inspections. But it also would have taken the same exemption away from Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, and Legoland Florida, too.
That was apparently a bridge too far in Tallahassee.
In fact, just a few days later, DeSantis held his now-infamous news conference at Disney World where he threatened to build a state prison on the property. During that event, DeSantis told reporters he was working on a plan to strip Disney of its exemption from ride inspections.
But the governor made sure to note that only Disney would be affected.
“Under the proposed legislation, would Disney still be conducting its own inspection of rides, along with Universal, SeaWorld and Legoland?” asked Mike DeForest, a reporter at WKMG, the CBS affiliate in Orlando.
“No, I don’t think so,” DeSantis responded. “I think what it’s going to be — and, you know, talk to the Legislature because I don’t even know that the draft is final on this particular thing — but I think what it is is that these inspections will be required for amusement parks within special districts. And, as you know, those [other] parks are not necessarily within special districts.”
No such legislation was ever filed.
And that reveals the fourth and most important truth about DeSantis’ war on Disney: He’s lying about the whole thing.
The governor has repeatedly claimed that he’s fighting for good-government reform — to eliminate Disney’s “corporate kingdom” and make the company “live under the same laws as everybody else.”
But all he’s really doing is attacking a company that criticized him, stopped giving him money, and became a convenient culture-war target for a politician desperate to out-Trump former President Donald Trump in the race for the Republican nomination for president.
Ron DeSantis has gleefully gone after Disney in a variety of ways — from seizing Disney World’s government district to asserting control over the giant resort’s monorail. And Republican leaders in the Florida Legislature have willingly enabled it all.
But this governor and Legislature apparently draw the line at anything that might also disturb other big donors — like Universal Orlando.
It may not surprise you to learn that Universal and its parent company, Comcast Corp., have spent roughly $5 million on campaign contributions just in the five years since DeSantis was elected governor, according to campaign-finance records. Universal has also showered more than $1 million in free park tickets, hotel rooms, meals and other entertainment on Florida politicians.
That includes roughly $900,000 in cash and $400,000 in freebies for the Republican Party of Florida — which DeSantis campaign strategists once described as “interchangeable” with DeSantis’ own political operation. It also includes nearly $50,000 just to McClure and his own political committee.
This is why, by the way, Florida politicians have for years turned a blind eye as Universal abuses a tax break that was supposed to help Florida’s poorest urban communities.
Look, you can absolutely make a good-faith argument that every attraction in Florida — from roadside carnivals to the Magic Kingdom itself — should have to abide by the same ride-safety rules.
But you cannot make a good-faith case that Disney’s theme parks should have to live by those rules — but Universal’s should not.
This is also an important point in the federal lawsuit that Disney has filed against the governor.
Much of that lawsuit focuses on two bills DeSantis pushed through the Legislature. The first, which the governor signed in April 2022, threatened to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the Disney-controlled government that provides municipal services like elevator inspections, garbage collection and fire protection at Disney World. The second, which DeSantis signed in February 2023, kept Reedy Creek but put DeSantis, rather than Disney, in charge of it.
Disney alleges that DeSantis and his appointees on the board of the former Reedy Creek — now known as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District — have unconstitutionally retaliated against the company for engaging in political speech, which is protected by the First Amendment.
But lawyers for DeSantis and his appointees are trying to argue that Disney can’t claim retaliation because these laws don’t actually “single out” the company.
That’s because there were also five other special districts targeted for elimination by that 2022 legislation. And there are a bunch of other taxpayers within the former Reedy Creek who were affected by the 2023 legislation.
“The statutes it [Disney] challenges applied to numerous other entities and individuals,” lawyers for the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District wrote in a brief filed last week.
This was already an absurd position.
For one thing, DeSantis and the Legislature have since stepped in to save three of those other five districts that were at risk because of the 2022 legislation. And the other two districts were microscopic: One managed a law library in Ocala, the other was a development authority in one of Florida’s tiniest counties.
For another, while it’s true that there are lots of other taxpayers inside Disney’s government district — like hotels, stores and other businesses who have either bought bits of land from Disney over the years or lease property from the company — they pay a relative pittance of the taxes. Disney pays nearly 90 percent of the total bill.
But now we have even more evidence that Ron DeSantis only has one real goal here: Claiming a pound of flesh from Mickey Mouse.