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DeSantis’ Disney woke war gives Universal Studios a big edge

Ron DeSantis wants to appear above the political fray. 

In his narrative, he’s some sort of swashbuckling sheriff freeing Florida residents from the tyranny of scientists and people who support teaching history as it happened, not as some people wish it had happened.

The right-wing presidential candidate has also pushed the notion that he’s a fighter for the people, working to force businesses pay their fair shares. 

That’s been a key part of his justification for taking over the former Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special tax district that gave Walt Disney DIS control over the land on which Disney World sits.

Related: Universal Studios follows Disney World in raising prices

DeSantis used the heavily Republican state legislature to end Disney’s control of Reedy Creek and replace its members with his hand-picked cronies. 

He says that move was designed not to punish Disney for former Chief Executive Bob Chapek publicly speaking out against his so-called Don’t Say Gay legislation but rather to simply end Disney’s special status.

“So all we want to do is treat everybody the same and let’s move forward. I’m totally fine with that,” he said earlier this year. “But I’m not fine with giving extraordinary privileges, you know, to one special company at the exclusion of everybody else.”

The problem, of course, is that Disney was not unique in having a special district. Florida has more than 1,000 of them, including districts controlled by Daytona International Speedway and The Villages 55+ retirement community.

Now, a new special district that’s fully controlled by Disney’s chief rival, Comcast’s CMCSA Universal Studios Florida, has been created. 

And Disney has cited the move in a new court document, in its case that’s trying to prove that Florida’s governor has singled the company out for retaliation due to its political stand.

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Super Nintendo World will be part of Universal’s Epic Universe.

Image source: Universal Studios Hollywood

Universal Studios gets a perk Disney lost

DeSantis did not create the special taxing district that covers the land where Universal Studios’ new Epic Universe theme park will sit. But he also did not object to it or have anything to say about the fact that the new Shingle Creek Transit & Utility Community Development District has nothing but Universal employees on its board.

Walt Disney has used this point in a new court filing to show that the governor has singled out the company for punishment.

In repeated public comments, the governor declared that the laws do not injure Disney because they simply make the company subject to the same regulatory structure applicable to all other Florida businesses, thereby creating a ‘level playing field.’ That contention is an outright falsehood. In fact, a special district was established just this month to regulate the land encompassing Universal’s new Epic Universe theme park in Orange County — with its inaugural board of supervisors comprising only Universal employees.

Disney’s new court filing also points out that the company faces a regulatory situation unlike what any other company in the state has to deal with

Further, most businesses and other property owners in Florida are regulated by elected, politically accountable municipal bodies. Few Florida businesses are subject, as Disney now is, to governance by a special district with a governor-controlled board that closely regulates the use of private property with no accountability to local property owners and taxpayers.

Disney, Florida’s largest single-site employer, has threatened to cut some of the $17 billion it had planned to spend in Florida over the next decade. 

The company has already canceled a planned $1 billion Orlando-area headquarters project, which would have brought about 2,000 six-figure jobs to Florida.

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Iger speaks out against DeSantis

Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger has been adamant that DeSantis has targeted his company for speaking out against his legislation. He has also pointed out the hypocrisy of the governor taking over the Reedy Creek district.

“[This] is not about special privileges or a level playing field or Disney in any way using its leverage around the state of Florida. But since there’s been a lot said about special districts and the arrangement that we have I want to set the record straight on that too. There are about 2,000 special districts in Florida. Most are established to foster investor development — we were one of them,” he said during his company’s second-quarter-earnings call.

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“If the goal is leveling the playing field in the uniform application of the law or government oversight of special districts needs to occur or be applied to all special districts,” he added.

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