Political Speech

DeSantis Appointees Accuse Disney District Predecessors of Cronyism

Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando
People gather at the Magic Kingdom theme park before the “Festival of Fantasy” parade at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, July 30, 2022. (Reuters/Octavio Jones)

By The Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appointees to Walt Disney World’s governing district on Wednesday released a series of reports justifying their takeover and accusing their Disney-controlled predecessors of being a part of “the most egregious exhibition of corporate cronyism in modern American history.”

The reports commissioned by the Florida governor’s appointees to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, or CFTOD, were the latest salvos in the ongoing court and public opinion battles between Disney and DeSantis over who controls the district. The governing body provides municipal services such as planning, mosquito control and firefighting in the roughly 40 square miles (100 square kilometers) in central Florida that make up Disney World.

The reports were being presented Wednesday during a meeting of the district’s board.

The feud started last year after Disney publicly opposed the state’s so-called don’t say gay law, which bans classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. The law was championed by DeSantis, who is running for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. In retaliation, DeSantis and Republican legislators took over the district Disney had controlled for more than five decades and installed five board members loyal to the governor.

Disney, DeSantis and the district have taken their fight to state and federal courts. A hearing is scheduled for next week in the federal case, in which Disney accuses DeSantis of violating the company’s free speech rights.

In a statement, Disney called the new reports “revisionist history.”

“It is neither objective nor credible, and only seeks to advance CFTOD’s interests in its wasteful litigation that could derail investment within the district,” the company said. “Further, it does not change the fact that the CFTOD board was appointed by the governor to punish Disney for exercising its Constitutional right to free speech.”

Disney also said in the statement that the reports were released as the DeSantis-friendly district government faces its own accusations of cronyism and mismanagement. More than 10% of the district’s 370-employees have left their jobs since the takeover, with many saying in exit interviews that the district has been politicized and is now permeated by cronyism.

The main report, which the district prepared for DeSantis and legislators, takes to task the way the government was operated before the takeover, claiming it was a “corporate subsidiary” of Disney rather than an independent governing body, with the appearance of conflict of interest rampant.

Disney cultivated the employees of the governing district through complimentary annual passes to its theme parks and steep discounts, which were worth millions of dollars each year, the main report says. The new board cut that perk earlier this year.

The new administrator of the district recently told employees they must pay $2 million in back taxes for the season passes. However, the district is considering covering those back taxes, the district administrator, Glen Gilzean, said in a memo.

The main report also describes the government run by Disney supporters as “an entity that fueled the rise and shielded the dominance of a company at the expense of the public good.”

“Its revelations are, simply put, shocking,” the report says.