Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday threatened to build a prison or a competing theme park near the Magic Kingdom or raise taxes on Walt Disney World to retaliate against the company for resisting a state takeover of its special taxing district.
Laying out his plan to exact retribution against the House of Mouse, the Florida Republican said the GOP-controlled state legislature will take steps to “formally nullify” Disney’s attempts to maintain control of the district through last-minute maneuvering.
DeSantis said lawmakers will advance a bill that will “make sure that people understand that you don’t get to put your own company over the will of the people of Florida.”
DeSantis moved earlier this year to take over the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the special taxing district that for half a century gave Disney control over the land around its Central Florida theme parks, and installed his political allies on the district’s board of supervisors. However, Disney in February reached an agreement with the outgoing board that seemed to render the body powerless to control the entertainment giant. The DeSantis administration was unaware of the agreement for a month and vowed retribution after it became public.
The clash between Florida and its largest employer started last year when the state passed a new law that limited classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity. Disney objected to the bill and vowed to help get it repeated. DeSantis responded by targeting the Reedy Creek Improvement District. On Thursday, DeSantis said Disney could “take a hike” if it didn’t like how the state was governing.
Speaking Monday on an Orlando radio program, DeSantis called the agreement “defective” and suggested it was not properly observed according to state law. Disney has maintained that it followed state meeting laws. The deal was agreed to in two public meetings that were noticed in the local newspaper.
DeSantis also said the new board overseeing Disney’s taxing district will meet Wednesday to “make sure Disney is held accountable.” An agenda for the meeting posted online says the board will consider firing existing staff and taking over development oversight within the district.
The board, which is made up of five DeSantis appointees, will also instruct staff to comply with a state inspector general investigation. DeSantis ordered the probe earlier this month.
Later on Monday, DeSantis suggested the state might build a prison or its own theme park next door to Walt Disney World.
“Come to think of it now, people are like, ‘well, what should we do with this land?’” DeSantis said. “Maybe create a state park. Maybe try to do more amusement parks. Someone even said like, maybe you need another state prison. I mean, who knows? I mean, I just think that the possibilities are endless.”
DeSantis also said the new board overseeing Disney’s special taxing district could raise taxes on the company’s vast theme park empire. He suggested that additional revenue could be used to pay down the district’s existing debt – a proposal that, if realized, could eventually allow the state to end the district for good. The 1967 law created by the district prevents the state from dissolving the district without paying off its debt.
The district’s sizable debt, estimated at $1 billion last year, prevented the state from moving ahead with a new law that would have eliminated the district by this June. The state earlier this year instead decided to keep the district but put DeSantis appointees in charge of its governing board.
Meanwhile, the state agriculture commissioner, Wilton Simpson, said he supported legislation that would require state inspections of theme parks. Currently, the state oversees smaller amusement park rides, but not those at large theme parks like Disney, Universal Studios, Sea World and Busch Gardens.
However, DeSantis said legislation would only apply to parks in “special districts.” Other theme parks are not governed by special districts.
DeSantis again denied that his administration was outmaneuvered by Disney and called its agreement to take power back a “legal fiction.” He said the agreement Disney reached with the outgoing board had a “plethora of legal infirmities” and the GOP-controlled legislature would quickly move a bill to nullify it.
“Disney did basically special deals to circumvent that whole process and so they, so they control the board,” DeSantis said. “It was basically like a legal fiction they negotiated with its – with themselves, to give themselves the ability to maintain their self-governing status.”
Earlier Monday, Simon Conway, the host of Good Morning Orlando, asked DeSantis if he would agree to a meeting with Disney CEO Bob Iger to resolve the conflict. Iger had recently told Time magazine that he would welcome a sit down with the Republican governor.
DeSantis said he would if Disney accepted “that they are not going to live under a different set of rules than everyone else.”
“If we can get there, fine,” he said. “But we’re not there yet.”