DeSantis ends Disney’s control of special district; names political supporters to new board

What qualities did you need to win appointment by Gov. Ron DeSantis to the new board that will replace The Walt Disney Co. as overseers of the thousands of Central Florida acres housing the company’s theme parks, and which will answer directly to him?

Judging by the list the governor released on Monday, it helped to be a political donor, a politically connected lawyer, a fellow advocate with the governor for “parental rights,” or founder of a religious entity preaching that the United States was meant to be a Christian nation.

They are:

  • Martin Garcia as chairman, described by the Tampa Bay Times as a prominent attorney whom DeSantis aides consulted while deciding whether to suspend Hillsborough County State’s Attorney Andrew Warren.
  • Bridget Ziegler, a member of the Sarasota County School Board and wife of freshly elected Republican Party of Florida chairman Christian Ziegler. She is a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, described by the Phoenix last year as advocating for “parents’ rights” to trump school-board decisions in divisive issues such as mask mandates in school, book bans, American race history, and gender identification.
  • Brian Aungst Jr., an attorney with the law firm of Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen in Clearwater, whose father, Brian Aungst Sr., served as mayor of that city.
  • Mike Sasso, a Central Florida lawyer and political donor to DeSantis, according to Florida Politics. DeSantis earlier placed him on the Ninth Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission and the Public Employees Relations Commission.
  • Ron Peri, founder of Radixx International in Orlando, which builds airline reservation systems, and leader of The Gathering, on the website for which he argues that “America was founded as a Christian nation as revealed in the founding documents and even in some case law argued before the Supreme Court.”

The board members must be confirmed by the Florida Senate.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation removing Disney’s special taxing status on Feb. 27, 2023. Source: Screenshot/DeSantis Facebook

Shortly after making the announcements, DeSantis signed legislation passed earlier this month creating the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which will replace Disney’s old Reedy Creek Improvement District. The new governmental authority retains Reedy Creek’s taxing authority and bond liabilities but under political rather than corporate oversight.

“I’m going to put my John Hancock on this piece of legislation and that’ll make it official. So, just look at your watch and you’ll know at what time the corporate kingdom came to an end,” DeSantis said.

The deed done, the governor said: “OK, it is in the book, right here.”

In passing the bill during a special session this month, Republican lawmakers tried to play down the degree to which they were retaliating against Disney for questioning a 2021 law limiting discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools.

But DeSantis’ bill-signing ceremony, conducted in a fire station within the district, was replete with complaints that Disney has recast its entertainment products to attack traditional morality.

Effective June 1

The new law took effect as soon as DeSantis signed it, but the district won’t operate under its new name until June 1. Among other provisions, the law removes the district’s ability to own and operate airport facilities, stadiums, convention centers, and a nuclear fission power plant.

The board’s first meeting is scheduled for March 8, DeSantis said, and he’d like the first order of business to include a discussion of raising pay for first responders working for the district. They allege that, under Disney, the district has been scrimping on pay and other support for firefighters, EMTs, and other staff.

Orange County state House member Anna Eskamani issued a written statement denouncing the new law.

“All this bill does is rename Reedy Creek and allow Gov. DeSantis to appoint hostile conservative cronies to a new board. Disney still maintains the same tax breaks — but their First Amendment rights have been suppressed, and it sends a message to any private individual or company that if you don’t purport to what the governor wants, then you’ll be punished,” it reads.

Eskamani called Petri’s The Gathering a “Christofascist” organization and noted that Garcia gave DeSantis $50,000 in political contributions last year.

“If DeSantis actually wants to end the corporate kingdom, then he should support policies like HB769/SB1144 that close corporate tax loopholes that companies like Disney exploit. But this was never about tax policy or corporate accountability — this was always about DeSantis and his sick agenda to target already marginalized people, and silent dissent,” she said.

The Legislature created the special district in 1967, giving Disney all the powers of a local government. Problems emerged after the company criticized the parental-rights legislation, which critics derided as “Don’t Say Gay” because they saw it as punishing the LGBTQ community. DeSantis referred during his news conference to the “little bit of a tussle” over the law.

“Since the 1960s, they’ve enjoyed privileges unlike any company or individual in the state of Florida has ever enjoyed. They’ve controlled their own government right here in Central Florida. They’ve had exemptions from laws that everybody else has to follow. And they were able to get huge amounts of benefits without paying their fair share of taxes and even racked up $700 million worth of municipal debt,” he said.

‘Inject a lot of the sexuality’

The governor also pushed the culture-war button.

“You clearly had a movement within the corporation itself, or Burbank, Calif.-based elements of it, that said their job or their goal to inject a lot of the sexuality into the programming for kids,” DeSantis — a parent of three small children — said.

“We had this situation here that was basically indefensible from a policy perspective. How do you give one theme park its own government and then treat all the other theme parks differently?”

DeSantis’ invited guests sang the same hymn.

Mandy Shafer, an organizer for Moms for Liberty, described how, growing up in Central Florida, her family made frequent trips to Disney World, which provided “wholesome entertainment for the entire family. Generally speaking, the Disney image reflected and promoted godly standards and the morality that I embrace because of my faith in and surrender to Jesus Christ.”

Then, “We became aware that Disney content was changing by including and promoting more and more immorality. Disney no longer withstood the moral decline of the culture but became a purveyor of that decline. I simply don’t want Disney, which I once trusted, to teach my child or any children to become comfortable with or to participate in immorality.”

Nick Caturano, founder of a Disney employee group called Goofy Vaccine, which opposed COVID mask and vaccine mandates at the theme park, argued that by opposing the parental-rights law, “they’ve signaled that it’s OK to sexualize kids and now they’ve opened them up to all kind of victimization that’s sure to come,” he said.

“We’ve gone from Cinderella and Snow White and Pocahontas and all these stories with morals and great characters and they have brought us stuff like “Little Demon,” who was a spawn of, the child of Satan, as the lead character. We have recently seen the cartoon “Proud Family” on Disney+, that really doesn’t tell the whole truth of what happened in our country and they try to build a narrative that everything in this country is built on the backs of slaves and reparations.

“And what they’re doing is they’re taking vulnerable children and they’re indoctrinating them into becoming activists and hating each other. It’s a profound evil, and it’s really a battle for the soul of our country. I call it tools in the Marxist toolbox.”

DeSantis, too, lamented that Disney has lost its way.

“I think all these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate,” he said.

He envisioned a time when the board can negotiate with the counties to “dissolve the state’s role and just give it to the counties permanently — which, you know, we would like to do at some point. We’re only going to do that if there are no problems or no burdens placed on the taxpayers.”

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