The old rules don’t work anymore

The Walt Disney Company used to control Florida’s government.

In 1965, Governor W. Haydon Burns hosted a press conference with Walt Disney where they announced the Florida Project, a sprawling development that became Walt Disney World. There has not been a time between 1965 and early 2022 when Mr. Disney’s company did not exert a heavy influence on Florida’s state government. To maintain that influence, Disney poured cash into just about every lawmaker’s pocket, donating heavily to politicians on both sides of the aisle.

When LGBTQ+ advocates noted that the company had spent heavily on every single sponsor and co-sponsor of Florida’s prejudicial anti-gay legislation this year, Democrats decided that maybe hosting a gala fundraiser at the theme park wasn’t a great idea. But it laid bare the truth of Florida politics: Disney needs the state to be on its side, and it pays everyone off, just in case.

That’s not unique to Florida, either. Companies routinely donate to campaigns regardless of party affiliation. Social issues – the issues that often motivate voters – don’t motivate companies, who are looking to secure favorable economic conditions to conduct business. In heavily Democratic states, companies back Democrats. When the time comes to craft legislation, company lobbyists head to state capitals to remind those Democrats who pays for their campaigns. In Republican states, companies back Republicans. Same deal.

Companies love stability and elections kind of interfere with that. There’s no way to guarantee your preferred candidate will win, so you have to play both sides. That way, no matter who wins, you can say they got there because of your support.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis got sacks of cash from The Walt Disney Company not because of some ideological alignment but because Disney needs to maintain the access it has to the state government (in 2018, the Orlando Sentinel noted that Disney tends to only support Republicans in Florida’s gubernatorial race because Democrats don’t win that race, hence no need to play both sides).

Facing re-election in 2022, though, DeSantis decided to pick a fight with Disney. Disney, who made a cartoon about lesbian witchcraft, earned the governor’s ire because it meekly opposed DeSantis’s anti-gay bill after the company faced protests from workers and outrage from audiences. DeSantis, of course, has the incredible power of the state, and so made a law abridging Disney’s freedom of speech. This might sound like it violates the First Amendment because it punishes Disney for speaking out against the government, but DeSantis cleverly targeted not Disney itself but rather the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

See, back in 1965, Disney – that is to say, Mr. Walter Elias Disney – wanted to built an experimental prototype city of tomorrow (which, naturally, included an east coast version of his wildly successful theme park). He bought a bunch of land in Florida and then promptly died of lung cancer, leaving his brother, Roy, holding a bunch of plans for a futuristic city that probably wouldn’t have worked. Wisely, Roy scrapped the city but kept the theme park. In the course of planning the city, though, the state had created a special entity called the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which streamlined the construction of the city and the park. Or, I guess, just the park.

Reedy Creek has always been an odd facet of Walt Disney World. It gives Disney an incredible amount of control over its parks, since it functionally controls the utilities and roads and other town services through the district. It pays taxes to the district and the district then pays some of those taxes to a utility company that’s owned by Disney. Convenient.

Reedy Creek can also issue municipal bonds and it looks like those municipal bonds might protect it from being dissolved by DeSantis because the state of Florida is legally obligated to repay the bonds in full before it can actually dissolve the district (and it might not be able to repay some bonds until 2029 according to the contractual language in the bonds themselves). DeSantis might be willing to go to bat anyway, though, and force statewide taxpayers to take on the debts on the district, just to punish Disney for daring to cross the almighty Florida government.

Playing both sides might have worked when both sides were rational actors. But the modern Republican Party is obsessed with state control over every aspect of life. That’s pretty opposite to how businesses have run in the laissez-faire American economy for centuries, and especially since the deregulation of the 1970s and 1980s. Companies need to learn from Disney’s Florida example: donating to Republicans doesn’t protect you when those Republicans decide you’re saying the wrong things.