July 24, 2024

Calling moves by Gov. Ron DeSantis “anti-business and anti-Florida,” Bob Iger showed today that he isn’t afraid of a street brawl with the likely GOP presidential hopeful.

“We love the state of Florida,” the Disney CEO said today at the company’s annual shareholder meeting, his first since returning to the top job in November. “We respect and appreciate what the state has done for us,” he added, but it’s been “a two-way street.”

In slick opening video, standing relaxed and debonair in front of Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, the CEO took a few benign swipes at DeSantis’ attempts to strip Disney of long-held jurisdictional rights in the Orlando area. “This has always been one of my favorite spots,” Iger said, noting that it used to be “remote swampland” before Disney stepped in, “thanks to those who dare to dream.” He added, “I am so proud of Disney legacy in Central Florida and around the world.”

But during a Q&A with shareholders, Iger stepped right up to the political plate and took a big swing.

“A company has a right to freedom of speech just like an individual does,” the CEO said of Disney’s criticism last year of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law. Acknowledging that the company’s response under previous chief executive Bob Chapek wasn’t handed as artfully as it could have been, the past and present chief hit back at the Florida governor with some of the GOP’s own talking points. DeSantis “retaliates against us — in effect to punish a company for exercising its constitutional right,” he said. “And that seems really wrong to me.”

He later noted that “diversity is a real priority for us” and expressed his desire that Disney continue to create content that promotes “greater understanding, greater acceptance.”

Iger also drilled down on what Disney has meant to Florida, noting that some “50 million visitors will come through our gates this year, about 8 million from outside the U.S. And we are the biggest taxpayers in the state. And we are planning to invest $17 billion over the next 10 years.” That means 13,000 new WDW jobs, plus many thousands of indirect jobs, and even more tax revenue. “Our point is, that any action that thwarts those efforts simply to retaliate against a position the company took sounds not only anti-business but anti-Florida.”

What a difference a year makes.

Today’s meeting follows Iger having fended off a proxy battle, conveniently eliminated a thorn-in-the-side called Ike Perlmutter amid a wave of layoffs to streamline the company, and apparently clawing back the company’s longstanding special rights on 27,000 acres around Orlando, which Florida lawmakers and DeSantis thought had been neutralized by a law they passed last year. However, the Disney-controlled Reedy Creek board, at its last meeting before state appointees stepped in, signed a 30-year development deal with the company. Following all the public notice and hearings requirements, the new deal stripped the DeSantis appointees of any real power and rubbed some salt in the wound by declaring the agreement was to run until “21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, king of England.” It wasn’t publicized, but it was public — though the new board did not notice it until this month, which has lots of people scratching their heads and DeSantis livid.

Caught flat-footed last week,the governor released a letter just before today’s shareholder meeting challenging the legality of that late-breaking deal and vowing to investigate.

It was at Disney’s 2022 annual meeting a year ago that Chapek, under pressure from Disney employees, first spoke out against Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill that forbids discussion or mention of sexual orientation in public schools through third grade.

At the 2021 meeting, a big issue was a Chapek explaining to a sad Girl Scout why she couldn’t see Raya and the Last Dragon with her troop because their local theater hadn’t accepted Disney’s stiff rental terms to show the film.