Florida: Disney v DeSantis-How a Corporate Behemoth Turned Beacon of Diversity

A Walt Disney World photographer holds a Pride rainbow-coloured Mickey Mouse cutout at the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom theme park in Orlando, Florida. Photograph: Octavio Jones/Reuters
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The fight between the Florida governor and the Magic Kingdom is weird and getting weirder, for a company that was not always a defender of LGBTQ+ rights

THE GUARDIAN

In an American political landscape seemingly defined by division and acrimony, one of the bitterest fights is also one of the strangest: the slug fest currently playing out between the rightwing Florida governor and 2024 White House hopeful Ron DeSantis and the Magic Kingdom of Disney World.

Last week was especially strange. DeSantis appeared to have bitten off more than he could chew when, as gas shortages riled Miami-Dade voters, he kept his long-running dispute with Disney World going through turns as tight as the teacups on the Mad Tea Party at the edge of Fantasyland.

DeSantis said he would try to change state law to open Disney World – the state’s largest employer – up to new inspections and threatened to build a prison next to the 43 sq mile family-friendly theme park.

That came after DeSantis signed legislation cancelling Disney’s control of a special tax district, known as the Reedy Creek improvement district, within which Disney World sits, that allowed it to maintain its own police and fire departments, planning powers and some other public functions

As part of Disney’s efforts to retain control, it cited a document passed by the outgoing Disney-sympathetic Reedy Creek board stating that its privileges will stand until “21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, king of England living as of the date of this declaration”.

Disney said it had cited “royal clauses” to skirt rules banning legal covenants that last in perpetuity, and because the Windsor’s family tree was readily available, and because of “better healthcare available to, and longer life expectancy of, a royal family member compared to a non-royal”.

In a counterattack, an attorney for a pro-DeSantis board of district supervisors said Disney’s efforts were “riddled with procedural impropriety and illegality” and “the restrictive covenants will not withstand any judicial scrutiny”.

But at the heart of the DeSantis v Disney dispute is something much bigger than both of them: the reignited and intensifying culture wars in America. DeSantis, with his eyes fixed on attracting Donald Trump’s base, has positioned himself as an extreme culture warrior. Disney’s top boss, Bob Iger – as the head of a vast corporation – wants a diverse clientele and has little interest in such positions and an active antipathy to DeSantis’s actions.

The DeSantis-Disney battle began with Florida’s discriminatory March 2022 parental rights in education legislation, dubbed “don’t say gay”, that banned classroom teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The controversial legislation – mimicked by other rightwing state governments across the US and condemned by liberals – was last week enhanced with separate bills passed by Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature on gender-transition treatments, bathroom use and keeping children out of drag shows.

Under Iger’s predecessor, Bob Chapek, Disney initially failed to publicly articulate its opposition to the law, opening up the company to internal and external criticism that it, too, was discriminatory. Chapek later apologized: “You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down.”

Ron DeSantis does little to dampen speculation of a presidential run at the Heritage Foundation in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on Friday.
Ron DeSantis does little to dampen speculation of a presidential run at the Heritage Foundation in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on Friday. Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP

But Iger has been more outspoken, criticizing the legislation and telling employees that inclusion and acceptance are among the “core values” of the company’s storytelling.

In fact, Disney’s battle with Florida goes back further than just DeSantis’s time as Florida governor and highlight the company’s unlikely role as a force in gay rights.

In 2007, it changed its policy to allow same-sex couples to participate in the popular Fairy Tale Wedding program, which had previously excluded queer couples from buying packages by requiring a valid marriage license from California or Florida, which did not at the time permit or recognize gay marriage.

“At the end of the day, they’re in business to make money,” the Rev Steve Smith of First Baptist church in Orlando said at the time. “I’m not entirely surprised that Disney would make a fiduciary decision over a moral one.’’

The wedding packages it offered included a ride to the ceremony in the Cinderella coach, costumed trumpeters, and a choice of character to attend, from Mickey and Minnie Mouse dressed in formal attire or, presumably, the seven dwarfs – Doc, Sleepy, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Bashful and Sneezy – serving as pageboys.

For eight years to 2005, conservative religious groups had boycotted Disney over policies giving health benefits to same-sex partners of employees, allowing “Gay Day” celebrations at its theme parks.

Disney has also previously been criticized by Democratic-aligned, pro-LGBTQ+ groups for failing to include openly gay characters in films or stand up for human rights, including in 2020, when parts of Mulan were found to have been filmed in Xinjiang where Uyghur Muslims have been detained in mass internment camps by Chinese authorities.

“The longstanding critique the left has had is the way that the state and corporations are in bed with each other. We now find that they are at odds with each other,” said the Disney historian Peter C Kunze. “It’s eye-crossing that a company that those of us on the left have criticized we now find defending against authoritarianism.”

Kunze has written extensively about Disney’s reticence to stick up for diversity and inclusion and its indebtedness to queer creators and audiences who helped keep the company afloat during its creative nadir in the 1980s.

On the animated side, Kunze credits the openly gay lyricist and director Howard Ashman for creating Disney’s animated musical template that produced The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, all of which went on to become hit stage musicals. The voluptuous sea witch Ursula in The Little Mermaid took inspiration from drag icons such as Divine and Ashman’s inspirations influenced Frozen, the $1.3bn global box office mega-hit released a decade ago.

This image released by Disney shows Josh Gad as LeFou in Beauty and the Beast, the company’s first ‘openly gay’ character.
This image released by Disney shows Josh Gad as LeFou in Beauty and the Beast, the company’s first ‘openly gay’ character. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/AP

“Fantasy often walks hand in hand with camp, one of the cornerstones of gay culture,” author Sean Griffin wrote in a study of Disney and the gay community, Tinker Belles and Evil Queens. But it wasn’t until six years ago, in 2017, that Disney promoted LeFou as its first “openly gay” character in the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast.

To Kunze, DeSantis and Disney will have to find a way to live together.

Even the governor’s threat to build an adjacent prison is probably just posturing against an economic powerhouse. “Disney owns so much land around the park and it’s intentional that you can’t see out,” he said.

But – just in case – others are circling. North Carolina Democrats have put forward a bill for Disney World to move to their state. Called the “Mickey’s Freedom Restoration Act”, the proposed law would create a commission to explore “strategic economic incentive plans designed to encourage family parks to expand or relocate” to North Carolina.

“Florida doesn’t seem a good fit for the happiest place on earth these days. In NC, y’all still means all,” the North Carolina senate minority leader, Dan Blue, said in a statement on Twitter.

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