Gov. DeSantis’ Attack on Disney Bad for Business and Worse for Florida’s Future
Hey, corporate leaders: If the GOP set a mouse trap for Mickey, they won’t hesitate to come for you too
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As we bear witness to the bigotry, backwardness and increasing vindictiveness of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, we must remind ourselves that Florida is an economic miracle created by modernity and scientific ingenuity. The state was a barely inhabited swamp in 1940, with a population of 1.9 million – and Miami was a sleepy outpost with a population of 172,000.
In the late 1940’s, the mass-production of air conditioning units made Florida significantly more inhabitable year-round. The storied Fontainebleau Hotel opened in 1954, followed by the Eden Roc Hotel in 1955, transforming Miami Beach from a mosquito trap into a must-see destination. In 1971, Disney World welcomed its first guests in Orlando. Overnight, Central Florida blossomed, transforming it from a giant orange grove into a world-famous tourist mecca. The rest is history, with Florida’s 2019 population at 21.5 million and Miami’s metro area supporting more than 6 million residents.
Florida’s success was predicated on a business-friendly environment, including offering Disney World the ability to fully control its internal affairs. It was done by creating the ambiguously named Reedy Creek Improvement District in 1967. This week, Gov. Ron DeSantis, with the help of his right-wing puppet legislature in Tallahassee, revoked Disney’s special privileges and abolished the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
This brazen, spiteful act was punishment for The Walt Disney company belatedly speaking out against what opponents call the “Don’t Say Gay” law. It muzzles teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with students. While no school district was teaching classes on the topic, the cynical effort is designed to scare teachers and put a chill on noble efforts to help LGBTQ youth.
Randy Fine, a Republican member of Florida's house of representatives and an author of the bill punishing Disney, accused the company of “kicking a hornet’s nest”. He arrogantly beat his chest and lectured, “you're a guest in our state, maybe you don't deserve those special privileges anymore'."
Disney just so happens to be a guest that is essential to Florida’s economy. The sales tax collected on Disney World tickets in 2018 totaled more than $409 million. According to USA Today, “The company employs more than 80,000 Floridians and Oxford Economics found at least 400,000 jobs can be traced to the $75 billion annual economic impact produced by its theme parks and resorts.”
It seems that Florida Republicans are trying to kill the post-air-condition Golden Goose that turned the state into an economic juggernaut. They want to micromanage company policies, control their HR departments, dictate speech and cancel corporations if they don’t toe the Party Line.
The problem for large corporations, such as Disney, is that if they kowtow to the crackpots in Tallahassee, they will alienate their international base of loyal customers, who are more tolerant than the GOP’s rabid base. Not to mention Disney can’t afford to estrange the LGBTQ community, a group that is essential to the company’s brand identity and success. A CNN story, “For many LGBTQ fans, the magic never fades”, explains the almost mystical bond.
Reality has no bearing at a Disney theme park -- which is part of the parks' appeal to many LGBTQ fans. A trip to a Disney park promises an escape from life as you knew it, permission to experience unfettered, childlike wonder and pose for photos with both Mary Poppins and Sadness, the perpetual downer from "Inside Out."
"The feeling of escaping reality and the harsh impact of society seems to just disappear once you walk into the park gates," said Franky Dalog, a transmasculine park employee.
Unlike Disney, right wing conservatives aren’t as essential as they think they are to Florida’s bottom line. They aren’t the economic engine, the spark plug or the fuel that drives the state’s success. They contribute relatively little and, to a degree, freeload off the liberal job creation centers in major cities, such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Orlando, Tampa, Key West and Gainesville. Unfortunately, Florida Republicans are driving power drunk, having wrested control of the steering wheel, cut the brakes and appear intent on blindly driving Florida back into the pre-air-conditioning economic swamp.
If the smarmy right-wing evangelicals that worship DeSantis think that Florida doesn’t need Disney or progressive enclaves, they ought to revisit the fate of Orlando’s failed biblical theme park, the Holy Land Experience. The Christian Post wrote that “the 14-acre park was once conceived as Christian competition for Walt Disney World.”
Unfortunately, it was no Cinderella story, with the company losing faith and pawning its land to AdventHealth in 2021. I guess the Book of Job didn’t create jobs on the industrial scale of Disney. Not that Florida Republicans care anymore about the economy. By eliminating the Reedy Creek Improvement District, residents will likely be spanked with $1.7 billion in bond debt. This would cost each taxpayer in the area $1,000 annually, or it could cost a family of four between $2,500-$3,000 a year. It turns out that DeSantis’ version of “Florida Values” aren’t such a great value.
Florida has prospered because of an unspoken deal. The major progressive cities would create vast oases of highly profitable art, culture, education, entertainment, culinary experiences, multiculturalism and liberal values. Right wing conservatives would often run the state government in Tallahassee and flourish in small towns in west and north Florida. While progressives were tangentially aware of these yammering yahoos’ angry rhetoric and endless grievances, their toxicity rarely penetrated our big city bubbles.
Sadly, the “live and let live” equipoise that has worked so well has become endangered. In his self-serving quest to become president and prove he’s Trump 2.0, Gov. DeSantis now insists on “owning the libs” in every corner of the state. He’s aggressively inserting himself in our daily lives and gleefully popping our bubbles of relative safety and sanctuary. This is a fool’s errand that might come back to haunt Florida.
I’m going to let Florida Republicans in on a little secret. Alabama and Mississippi have good weather and pretty beaches too, but most Americans don’t want to live there. Leading tech companies aren’t clamoring to set up shop in these states, despite low prices and inexpensive real estate. If DeSantis and his Evangelical parrots want to refashion Florida as a redneck redoubt, educated people will flock elsewhere.
When companies can’t recruit top college graduates to come to Florida and executives are fed up with being barked at and bossed around by Tallahassee, these businesses will choose to exit. Corporations thrive on certainty, and the Florida GOP has devolved into an intolerant, undemocratic cult that rules by whim, decree and mood swing.
How would an exodus of the state occur? The process would begin by Republicans creating the perception that Florida was unwelcoming, unsophisticated, unsafe and uncool. If the GOP puts the Old South in South Beach, it will cease being an international destination. If Republican rats seek to control Mickey Mouse, they will take the magic out of the kingdom.
The process of ruining Florida’s image is already well underway with voter suppression, anti-LGBTQ laws, racist attempts to whitewash history and largely denying the impact of man-made climate change. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade in the summer, and Florida becomes a no-abortion state, this would probably expedite reevaluations of Florida’s profitability and livability.
We have already seen anti-LGBTQ incidents that are a grave cause for concern. Last week, a homophobic goon confronted James Garcia, who was walking his pooch in a LGBTQ-friendly area in the heart of Fort Lauderdale. The man asked Garcia if he were gay. When he replied in the affirmative, Garcia was brutally slugged in the face.
“He punched me really hard. I fell to the ground bleeding,” Garcia said. “My phone was covered in blood. I couldn’t call 911. My fingers kept slipping ... I asked for help but a person just kept walking. Thankfully another person from the neighborhood stopped [and] called the police…. “When I close my eyes, I see this attacker every day. I hear his voice. I see his face.”
In another alarming Fort Lauderdale hate crime that occurred last summer, a family ambushed and attacked a gay man in his apartment. They beat him senseless, leaving him blind and having to eat through a feeding tube. The assailants justified their barbarity by accusing the victim of turning their 21-year-old son gay. Such ignorant attitudes filter down from the blood libel spread by the DeSantis administration, that asserts LGBTQ people “groom” youngsters.
A few more incidents like these, and the state’s reputation for tolerance will need to be reassessed. If the LGBTQ population – and its allied non-gay families and friends -- sour on Florida, the state’s future will be in jeopardy, since virtually all healthy economic and creative hubs have vibrant LGBTQ communities.
It’s important to realize that the GOP’s authoritarian attack on business is not unique to Florida. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently created a hot mess, when he deliberately created traffic jams at the Mexican border to show that he’s tough on immigration. This led to a halt in commerce, including $240 million in spoiled produce that was headed to U.S. supermarkets.
Gov. DeSantis’ attack on Disney and Gov. Abbott’s border stunt were deliberate messages to corporate America sent by GOP leaders representing the two largest Red States: “No company is safe from our wrath. It’s my way or the highway.”
Corporate leaders would be wise to pack up headquarters and choose the highway. There are Blue States with more conducive and reliable business climates. The old corporate friendly GOP is dead. They have been supplanted by radical ideologues who dictate to companies in a way that would have made Fidel Castro proud. Right wing talk show host Ben Shapiro outlined the near-future in stark terms:
“If you decide to just become a woke corporation that does the bidding of your democratic taskmasters, don’t be surprised when you get clocked with a legislative 2X4. F around and find out!” he warned.
Attention business leaders: Don’t f-around. Don’t find out. Pack your bags and get out while you still can. If the GOP was bold enough to set a mouse trap for Mickey, they won’t hesitate to come for you. If you think it’s going to get better, Disney should be your warning that you’re living in Neverland.