Did your Sunday evenings include the television show Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color? There would be a terrific movie hosted by the man himself, and later by the Walt Disney Company. At each commercial break, the Disney castle would be lit up, Tinker Bell would fly out, circle around, and touch the screen with her magic wand, turning everything into bright colors of the rainbow.
Do you remember those classic Super Bowl games, where the scoring went back and forth between teams, then one quarterback threw a touchdown pass in the closing minute to win? He came off the field, and the first words he spoke were: “I’m going to Disneyworld!”
Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida have given the world a lot of inspiration, excitement, and time to stew while in line for the next ride. Of course, Disney—the company—has always been a commercial enterprise. Ever since Walter Disney drew his original Mickey Mouse in 1928, the business of animation and cartoons has had its place in American society.
Unjustly accused of anti-Semitism and racism in the mid-20th century, Mr. Disney has long established a personal legacy of tolerance and inclusion. After his death in 1966, he was described as a man whose films are “considered valuable in American Christian society,” and “include individualism, decency...love for our fellow man, fair play and toleration.” It is no surprise, then, that in the 21st century this reputation continues to exist in the business operations that follow him.
Now fast forward to 2022. The Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, has been on a streak of enacting ultra-conservative policies through his state legislature. Anti-abortion, anti-public education, anti-voting rights and, of course, anti-LGBTQ all describe the recent and upcoming legislation overseen by this Governor. The innocuous-sounding “Parental Rights in Education” bill prohibits teachers from engaging in any discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity for grades K-3, and higher grades if the material being discussed is not “age appropriate.”
This legislation quickly became known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. If any parent gets word of such discussion in his/her child’s classroom, they are encouraged to bring it to the attention of school administrators. Disney’s reaction to this was muted at first. The initial press release from Bob Chapek, Disney CEO, took an apolitical tack.
Not wanting to handle the political hot potato, Chapek was lackluster in his response to the bill. Disney employees immediately reacted strongly, offended that he had taken such a hands-off approach. They voiced their concern to the point that Chapek issued a follow-up statement the next day. “It is clear that this is not just an issue about a bill in Florida, but instead yet another challenge to basic human rights. You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry.”
Chapek then decided that Disney Corporation would cease making any political contributions to any person who supported the bill, as they have done over the years. DeSantis is not pleased. In turn, he has promised to revoke the Special Tax District status that has been in place since 1967. Disney received this favorable arrangement from the state and has been able to be an independent municipal entity for over 60 years.
To paraphrase an old adage, “Hell hath no fury like a…Governor scorned.” DeSantis has come down hard on Disney for its opposition to the Don’t Say Gay bill. At the Governor’s behest, the state legislature has already passed a bill eliminating all tax districts that were established prior to 1968.
The fallout from this action will be interesting to follow. The Disney property, the largest private employer in the state, will no longer be a self-sustaining tax district. It will be rolled into both Orange and Osceola County governments. The jobs of the 300 employees of the tax district, including many first responders, will be in jeopardy. The billion-dollar debt load currently carried by Disney will be assumed by the two counties and passed on to residents there.
DeSantis is using his Governor’s desk and pen as authoritarian instruments to wield power not typically seen at the state level. There is a movement afoot among progressive parents to use the Parental Rights in Education bill to call out teachers and school districts that use heterosexual and cisgender examples of families in their classrooms. The bill itself only states that teachers cannot instruct their students about sexual orientation or gender identity. This can work both ways, according to these progressives.
As the push-pull struggle continues between DeSantis and Disney, it remains to be seen how it will play out. Disney is sticking to its policies of inclusion, acceptance, and equality. And that, my friend, is what makes it the Magic Kingdom. ▼
David Garrett, a CAMP Rehoboth Board member, is a straight advocate for equality and inclusion. He is also the proud father of an adult trans daughter. Email David Garrett at email@example.com.