5 DeSantis allies now control Disney World's special district. Here's what's next
Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill to take control of municipal services and development for a special zone encompassing Walt Disney World.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District — which DeSantis has renamed the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District — allowed Disney World to expand and operate with a high amount of autonomy over the last 50 years.
In writing, the new board will end Disney's long practice of taxing itself to develop on the 25,000 unincorporated acres sandwiched between Osceola and Orange counties. It'll oversee services like sewage treatment and maintain the local roads, as well as decide how much Disney will pay for those services.
But in effect, DeSantis said last week, the board will also serve as a moral arbiter.
"When you lose your way, you gotta have people that are going to tell you the truth," the governor said. "All these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate."
To DeSantis' critics, the board looks like retribution for Disney's stated opposition to a hot-button gender education bill the governor championed last spring.
The new quasi-government board may not be able to have a say in Disney content — say, which characters the company creates or what's included in its next movie script. But it can decide when and how its biggest theme park can build critical projects.
And as a sign that the board may push back against Disney's increasingly progressive slant, DeSantis selected five of his cultural allies and political donors to serve in the oversight roles.
Here's a look at his appointees:
1. Bridget Ziegler, a prominent parents' rights activist
Bridget Ziegler is a Sarasota school board member who rose to national prominence as a self-labeled parents' rights advocate, fighting against critical race theory and LGBTQ+ inclusivity.
A mother of three, Ziegler co-founded Moms for Liberty and helped lay the groundwork for the Parental Rights in Education Act, known to its critics as the "Don't Say Gay" bill. Disney's opposition to the legislation served as a tipping point in a growing feud between the company and the governor.
Her ties to conservative politics are wide reaching. Last month, Ziegler's husband, Christian Ziegler, was named chairman of the state's Republican Party. She also chairs the Leadership Institute, a firm that recruits and trains potential conservative candidates.
Ziegler publicly attacked Disney last year for asking a high school marching band to cover up its logo, which features its Native American mascot, in order to perform at Magic Kingdom.
Shameful to see Disney continue to use children as pawns to advance their WOKE political agenda.— Bridget Ziegler (@BridgetAZiegler) November 5, 2022
Kudos to staff for not kowtowing to their demands.
There is 0 chance that we will be forcing Venice to change their mascot. Nothing but respect & pride.https://t.co/l0UNKxCjbg
In an interview with NPR, Ziegler implied that some of Disney's recent cost-cutting measures were due to its stances, but stopped short of saying whether the board would use its powers to influence Disney's financial well-being.
"We will stay within the lines of what our oversight is," Ziegler affirmed. She also reiterated several times that the board's main function was "to serve the best interest of Floridians."
"As a parent of three children, as a Floridian, as someone who has been a consumer of Disney as long as I can remember, there's no question it's disappointing to see the direction they're taking," she said.
"It's really alienated their base consumers across the country. And that has an impact on the financial aspects of Disney," she said, specifically pointing to Disney+ subscriber numbers. Variety reports the streaming platform lost 2.4 million subscribers from October to December 2022, but that the drop was "entirely driven" by a drop in the Indian market after Disney lost streaming rights to cricket matches.
When asked how Floridians should read the board's political lopsidedness, Ziegler said the media's concentration on politics had generally undercut the board members' professional reputations.
She said her experience on the Sarasota school board and her 10 years as a risk management consultant made her uniquely qualified to serve on the board.
2. Ron Peri, a Christian nationalist
Ron Peri's résumé includes time as the founder, CEO and chairman of Radixx International, an airline technology company, and as chief technology officer of AirTran Airways, a low-budget local airline that was acquired by Southwest.
But he's perhaps best known as the chairman and CEO of the Gathering, a Florida-based ministry that probes cultural issues through a Christian lens.
Notably, the Gathering seeks to destigmatize Christian nationalism, a worldview that combines American exceptionalism with a belief that all U.S. laws should adhere to Christian values.
A recent survey suggests that as many as half of Republicans embrace the idea, even as hate watch groups have connected the ideology to dangerously anti-democratic extremism.
Peri, too, has weighed in on the Florida education debates. He has praised Moms for Liberty for its work on the Parental Rights bill and described critical race theory as "a cunningly devised fable."
In a recent video sermon, Peri specifically called out Disney for training employees on topics like systemic racism, white privilege and microaggressions.
Peri did not respond to NPR's request for comment.
3. Three Florida lawyers, all Republican donors with known DeSantis ties
Martin Garcia, the board's chairman, is a Tampa lawyer who previously served on the board of three New York Stock Exchange companies. His private investment firm, Pinehill Capital Partners, donated $50,000 to the DeSantis campaign for the 2022 Florida gubernatorial election.
Appointee Michael A. Sasso, an Orlando lawyer focused on election law and business litigation, donated roughly $9,000 to conservative candidates, including DeSantis, during the last election season. Sasso is president of the Orlando chapter of the Federalist Society and serves on several state commissions thanks to DeSantis appointments.
Sasso and Garcia are not the first donors DeSantis has placed in leadership roles.
In the governor's first term, he placed 250 of his donors into top leadership positions, according to an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times. That number represents a 75% increase over the number of donor appointments by his predecessor, Republican Rick Scott.
The final Disney board appointee, Brian Aungst Jr., donated roughly $2,000 to local candidates — but, notably, not DeSantis — during the last election cycle.
Aungst, whose father was once the Republican mayor of Clearwater, is a local land-use attorney and former chairman of the regional chamber of commerce. DeSantis appointed Aungst to a judicial nominating commission in 2021.
When contacted by NPR, Aungst said he had no comment for the story. Garcia and Sasso did not respond to emails from NPR requesting comment.
What happens next?
Disney has not responded to multiple NPR requests for comment since last Monday's bill signing, but previously said it wouldn't fight the takeover.
State Democrats, on the other hand, have called DeSantis' move a reckless act of government overreach.
"Disney still maintains the same tax breaks — but their First Amendment rights have been suppressed," said Rep. Anna Eskamani, the state representative whose district includes Disney World, in a statement. "It sends a message to any private individual or company that if you don't purport to what the Governor wants, then you'll be punished."
As a reminder, it’s 100% not normal for a Governor to take over a private business and install his political donors because this business said something he didn’t like.— Representative Rita Harris (@RitaForFlorida) February 28, 2023
Asked about the function and political appearances of the board, Ziegler reiterated the conservatives' counterpoint: "All Floridians would agree that they care about good, fiscally sound decisions and that no corporation should get special privileges over them," she said.
The Disney board will still need to be officially approved by the Republican-controlled state Senate, but will begin its work this week with a public meeting.
Ziegler told NPR that the board's first priorities would be evaluating the current state of the property, including a financial review. Part of that might include raising the compensation for the local firefighting brigade, an idea that DeSantis raised during last Monday's bill signing.
DeSantis also suggested last Monday that the board might ultimately be an interim step to passing Disney off to local control.
"Even though I would like the local governments to just take this, I was not going to put taxpayers at risk, and I did not trust them [local government] to be able to handle this at this point," DeSantis said, referencing his initial plan to dissolve the special district altogether.
"It's under state control, not local control, but we may be able to negotiate something in the future."
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