DeSantis’ Attack on Disney Recalls a ’90s Culture War That the Right Lost (Guest Column)

Disney Castle

If the increasingly bare-knuckle battle between Florida’s conservative Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, and the Walt Disney Co., over the Sunshine State’s new “Don’t Say Gay” law and other legislation, sounds eerily familiar, it should.

The current clash of values and culture between the Sun Belt and the West Coast sharply echoes the 1990s Southern Baptist Convention’s Disney boycott.

In 1995, members of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, with just under 16 million members, grew increasingly restive toward Disney. What set them off initially was Disney’s announcement that it would provide health benefits to partners of its LGBT employees. There was also discontent with Disney’s content, which seemed to be increasingly liberal on social and cultural issues. Their publishing arm, Hyperion, published books like “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Growing Up Gay,” and critics even falsely charged the company’s animators of covertly inserting subliminal, obscene dialogue and occult images in their animated features. Also, the theme park officially sanctioned “Gay Days” and supported the display of rainbow Pride flags.

Analysts saw the dispute as a culture clash between Disney, with a strong commitment to the West Coast creative community, based in Burbank, which was socially liberal, urban and cosmopolitan; and conservative Southern Baptists, later joined by other evangelical groups, like the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and the National Federation for Decency, who saw Disney as a bastion of family values under siege from within. At the time, there was a veiled but unmistakable undertone of theological resentment that the last remaining WASP-controlled Hollywood studio was then being led by two Jews, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

I saw and reported on these fissures when I covered the unfolding controversy for the Orlando Sentinel. I had some bicoastal perspective: I was fresh from the Los Angeles Times’ Orange County Edition, and Disney was part of our circulation area. One of the boycott’s prime movers, the Rev. Wiley Drake, was pastor of an Orange County congregation.

Despite the Southern Baptists’ numbers and bluster, Eisner and Katzenberg did not back down one inch, either on health benefits or with complaints about content, which they dismissed out of hand. In a “60 Minutes” interview, Eisner, who had refused to meet directly with SBC leaders, told Lesley Stahl that, “I say inside deep down, they’re nuts.”

In the end, the boycott fizzled. Even some Southern Baptists didn’t observe the boycott, and many in Central Florida who work for the company were concerned about their jobs. A 1998 poll commissioned by the Orlando Sentinel found that only 30% of the denomination’s members participated in the boycott. So, that round went to Disney.

DeSantis Amps Up Rhetoric

This time around, DeSantis, a Trump protégé who is running for reelection this year, but has barely disguised presidential ambitions for 2024, has picked a fight with the state’s largest and most powerful employer. Disney is a multi-national corporation used to getting its way, mainly through its largesse of campaign contributions. Over the decades, Disney has been largely nonpartisan and non-ideological in its donations; it bankrolls whichever party is in power, and whichever candidates are in a position to return the favor.

As Vito Corleone says in the “Godfather,” “Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me.” From the very beginning of Disney World in Orlando, such days have come regularly.

In 1967, when Florida Democrats controlled state government, the legislature, at Disney’s request (demand, really, for locating in Florida), carved out the Reedy Creek Improvement District. This highly unusual hybrid governmental arrangement guaranteed that Disney property would be the equivalent of a county government, but with no accountability except to the company. That enabled Disney to become a law unto itself, with its own police force, and effectively prevents the area from being a self-governing democracy.

In the years since, legislators and local government agencies have given Disney pretty much whatever it wanted, from mass transit routes to tax breaks to regulatory carve-outs. Until now, both parties have been comfortable with this transactional bargain.

Then, last year, DeSantis decided it was in his political interest to pick a fight with Disney – a series of fights, actually – banging the culture war drum in order to galvanize his base, including evangelicals, in Florida and across the nation. The controversial legislation was not confined to the “Don’t Say Gay” law (officially the “Parental Rights in Education” bill), prohibiting “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity.”

In addition, the pugnacious governor proposed or endorsed measures that would limit the ability of young trans athletes to compete against non-trans youngsters. Other measures that outraged Disney employees, on both coasts, included sharp limitations on reproductive rights, and a law implementing severe restrictions on voting – which critics say amounted to suppression.

Most of the Republican legislators who voted for or supported these measures were recipients of Disney campaign contributions.

At first, Disney Chairman Bob Chapek responded with a lame statement, saying “the biggest impact we can have in creating a more inclusive world is through the inspiring content we produce.” A revolt among Disney employees compelled Chapek to apologize to the company’s LGBTQ employees, and to release much stronger statements about these issues. Chapek announced that the company was suspending political contributions to all Florida office seekers.

At that, DeSantis shot back that maybe it was time to reconsider all the state government giveaways to Disney – heretofore anathema. Some civic leaders feared that the governor was threatening to kill the goose that has laid so many golden eggs in Central Florida, contributing roughly $75 billion a year to the state’s economy. In escalating rhetoric, the governor issued several gratuitous slams at Disney, telling Fox News that Disney is trying to “impose a woke ideology” on Florida.

“The political influence they’re used to wielding, I think has dissipated,” DeSantis told reporters in Palm Beach last Thursday. “And so the question is, why would you want to have special privilege in the law at all?”

DeSantis has also begun sending out fundraising emails that highlight his pushback against Disney.

And this is not merely demagoguery. Republican legislators have already held two meetings to consider revoking the special provisions of the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

Governor DeSantis may feel free to use Disney as a diverting political punching bag, confident that the company isn’t going anywhere no matter what the state does. But at some point his rhetoric may run the risk of offending the company’s loyal Florida fan base. For all DeSantis’ bluster, as the Southern Baptist Convention learned 30 years ago, it’s always a longshot to bet against an entertainment giant whose employee roster is stacked with invincible superheroes.

In the chapter of my book, “The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust,” dealing with the failure of the Southern Baptist boycott, I wrote, “In the months and years following the boycott vote and the ensuing controversy, essentially nothing happened. The denomination, as some within it feared – and warned – appeared to be a paper tiger.”

Governor DeSantis might want to take note.

The author wrote “The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust.” He also covered the Southern Baptist Convention’s boycott of Disney as the religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel.