DeSantis Threatens to Build a State Prison Next to Disney World

  • DeSantis made it clear that he won’t let Disney off easy after the company’s power grab this year.
  • He threatened to build a state prison and said the legislature would impose new ride inspections.
  • Disney hasn’t said what it’ll do next, but it’s not expected to give up its power without a fight.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is taking a third swing at Walt Disney World after the company humiliated the Republican governor by making a sly power grab to keep control of its land. 

During a press conference in Lake Buena Vista, Florida — the city where Disney is located — DeSantis announced a slew of forthcoming reprisals against the resort and theme park, including the possibility of building on the 40 square miles of land that borders it.

He floated the possibility of turning the land into a state park, another theme park, or even a state prison. Such development could affect home values on nearby properties. 

“Who knows? I just think that the possibilities are endless,” DeSantis said, adding that the board he appointed to oversee Disney’s land would also consider selling utilities housed on the district to a private entity. 

The governor didn’t stop there. He previewed a bill he said the legislature would introduce next week that would impose new inspections regulations on Disney, including on its monorail and its rides.

DeSantis has been trying to tear down a decades-long provision long on the books that gives Disney special self-governing privileges in Florida — privileges that many other businesses, including rival theme parks such as Sea World and Universal Studios, don’t have. 

While those parks must run their plans by zoning commissions or building-inspection departments, Disney doesn’t have to. This makes their operations run more efficiently, saving them time and money.

“If these are not good laws, then everyone should be exempt,” DeSantis said. “You shouldn’t just say one corporation should be exempt.”

The board DeSantis appointed to oversee Disney is scheduled to meet Wednesday. At that time, DeSantis said, the group would void the loophole that stripped them of their power. The legislature would pass a bill on that front just to assure it would go through, DeSantis said, but predicted the Disney maneuver held “legal infirmities.”

Disney’s power grab in question left the business and Florida politics world shocked and amused, but also filled with trepidation over what the governor would do in retaliation against the family-favorite entertainment and tourism company. 

Monday’s list of actions from the DeSantis administration and lawmakers partially answers that question. The governor also floated obligating Disney to post signs at its hotels to warn about human trafficking, creating more workforce affordable housing, banning mask mandates from its district, giving the district’s first responders raises, and appraising Disney’s property to see whether its property taxes should be higher.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson said at the press conference that the new bill would allow his office to inspect rides at large theme parks after somebody is injured in order to determine whether the ride is safe to continue operating. His agency oversees the division of consumer services, which currently oversees injuries on theme-park rides, with the exception of large theme parks such as Disney. 

“One word of advice to Disney Corporation going forward,” Republican state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill, said at the press conference. “Just let it go, let it go,” he joked, invoking one of the songs from the Disney movie “Frozen.” 

The Disney feud is one of several actions DeSantis has taken as governor that have burnished his brand as a Republican willing to use the power of government to retaliate against opponents who publicly disagree with him, and to achieve policy goals. DeSantis is widely expected to announce a presidential bid as early as May, when Florida’s lawmaking session is over. 

DeSantis made his Disney announcement as another storm, of hail, thunder, and rain, descended on Broward County, compounding floods in the area that were still abating from last week and grounding planes at Fort Lauderdale International Airport. 

Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Disney CEO Bob Iger told Time last week that he would be “glad” to sit down with DeSantis “to discuss all of this.” Disney has said its move was “discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums.” 

Disney World has roughly 80,000 employers in Florida and is the state’s biggest tourist attraction. The district housing Disney collects roughly $105 million a year in general revenue, according to CNBC, and paid more than $280 million in property taxes between 2015 and 2020. 

Richard Foglesong, the author of the book “Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando,” told Insider that he didn’t expect Disney to “just roll over” but said the floated proposals to build prisons or affordable housing on the undeveloped land would “scare them plenty.” 

Referring to the affordable housing provision, he said, “If employees lived on property, they could vote in the elections in the two Disney cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, giving them a voice in Disney operations and potentially making Disney World a socialist-style worker paradise.”

Disney announced a year ago that it would set aside 80 acres of its land for 1,300 affordable housing units, for both cast members and for the public. It’s not clear when the project will begin. 

Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

Gregg Newton/AFP via Getty Images

The fight started with school curriculum 

DeSantis previewed his latest retribution during several stops across the US when he was promoting his new, bestselling book last week. Former President Donald Trump chimed in to mock DeSantis over the spat last week, saying on Truth Social that the governor “got outplayed, outsmarted, and embarrassed by Mickey Mouse and Disney,” 

The spate of actions announced Monday are a step forward for DeSantis after a document request flop over the weekend, when Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody learned no public records existed over the Disney loophole agreement. She’d requested texts, emails, and other public records from the former board members of the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

The DeSantis-Disney feud first began in early 2022. Disney drew DeSantis’ ire after its leaders said publicly that the company would work to repeal the Parental Rights in Education Act, the legislation LGBTQ rights groups and Democrats have derided as “Don’t Say Gay,” because it limits classroom instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation. 

DeSantis has defended the legislation and his administration is set to go even further. He has framed his fight as “protecting children,” and said, alluding to his decisive victory in November, that Disney subverted the will of Florida voters. 

“This was an issue in that in the election, both for the legislature and for governor,” he said Monday. “I was very clear where I stood.”

But Democrats in the state slammed the governor over his proposals. “The policies that DeSantis are proposing are punitive in nature and targeting one specific corporation for expressing their First Amendment rights,” Democratic state Sen. Anna Eskamani, who represents Orlando, told Florida Politics. “I find it disingenuous. I find it anti-consumer.” 

DeSantis worked with the legislature twice before to punish the company. First he signed a bill into law in April 2022 to dissolve the Reedy Creek district that oversees Disney. But when it was revealed the measure could have resulted in residents taking on a sizeable amount of debt through higher taxes, the legislature sent DeSantis a new bill in February 2023, during a special session, that would allow the governor to appoint a board to control the district. 

Disney, however, had written in a loophole that allows it to keep the majority of its power.

Other actions from the governor are expected, given that he told his audience “stay tuned” as he was leaving the stage. 

DeSantis, during a recent stop in Michigan, said he would also consider taxes on hotels, as well as new tolls. He asked the state inspector general to look into Disney’s power play, including by assessing whether the mega-corporation’s executives, staff, or agents were involved. 

The governor’s appointees to the board, who were intended to oversee Disney, are consulting with four different law firms over the matter, according to the Orlando Sentinel

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