Inside the Magic Asks: Who Won Disney vs. DeSantis?

in Walt Disney World

A juxtaposition of celebration and exasperation: fireworks burst in joy above a magical castle at Disney World, while Ron DeSantis appears to let out a vociferous cheer or yell.

Credit: Inside The Magic

After months of legal conflict, things seem to have settled down between the Walt Disney Company and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. But while the terms of their sudden settlement ensure neither the former presidential candidate nor the iconic media company have to admit fault, we still have to ask…who won?

Depressed DeSantis against justice scales
Credit: Inside the Magic

Inside the Magic decided to ask Professor Richard Foglesong, a highly regarded scholar of the history of Walt Disney World and the author of Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando. In the past, Professor Foglesong has written a definitive work on the symbiotic relationship between the Walt Disney World Resort and the former Reedy Creek Improvement District, and there’s no one we trust more to give us some insight as to what exactly happened between Disney and DeSantis.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In our last interview regarding Disney and Governor DeSantis, you spoke about politics as a method of “problem-solving with bargaining, negotiation, and head butting” being part of that. Do you think that’s what led to this settlement?

Yes. I do. After that interview, I wondered whether I had been too optimistic [about] the way people sometimes are about problems getting solved in Washington. But here, it did work out that way. Governor DeSantis and his GOP allies began to act like Republicans used to act: pro-business, at least in this regard. So there’s some more to say about this. It’s not all quite so positive, in my judgment. But they did seemingly come to terms, they being the Disney company and the DeSantis administration.

Why do you think there was an abrupt change between multiple pending lawsuits, such as Disney v. DeSantis at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and then suddenly, there was an announcement of a settlement?

I think you put your finger on at least one of the important factors, that Disney was losing in court, losing in the federal case, and probably that put them on notice. I think, too, that Disney saw the need to move forward with new investments at the Park, in part because of their competition from Universal Studios. 

A happy family enjoying their time at the entrance of Universal Studios, with the iconic rotating globe in the background.
Credit: Universal

Rather than hand the DeSantis administration a victory while investing $60 billion over the next decade without getting something from [him] at the same time, they felt the need to have some reconciliation so that they could and would move forward with new investments in the park to counter the challenge from their largest competitor.

That makes sense. We recently covered how Governor DeSantis was asked in an interview whether he would bring his children to Disney World at this point, and he immediately pivoted to talking about how great Universal was, which I think is probably somewhat representative of the moment.

Right. Here’s something that hasn’t been reported yet: the DeSantis administration’s concession in appointing the new member of the [Central Florida Tourism Oversight District] board, Craig Mateer. So I’m sure you know something about this, Craig Mateer made millions in the tourism-related business baggage handling. And there’s a way in which you can read the language of the CFTOD board legislation that replaced the old Reedy Creek that would make someone like Craig Mateer ineligible to be appointed to the board. 

Ron DeSantis and Craig Mateer in front of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District building in Walt Disney World Resort.
Credit: Inside The Magic

I’m quoting from that charter, and it says any person who, within the past three years, has been an officer, owner, director, employee, agent, contractor, or subcontractor of or has had a contractual relationship with a business entity that owns or operates a theme park or entertainment complex can’t be a member of the board.

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To my reading, Craig Mateer clearly fits that description. He has contracted with Disney for his baggage-handling business. And now I’m not going say to you that that’s corrupt. I’m not going say to you that that’s public policy, but it does seem that his appointment is contrary to what the legislation purportedly allowed to occur. It was problematical in my judgment that this legislation adopted at the insistence of DeSantis by the state legislature essentially precluded appointing anyone to the board who had any relevant expertise.

You know, that maybe wasn’t so wise, but nonetheless, that’s what the legislation says. I think we’re going to see some reporting on this issue, raising the issue of whether Mateer is actually eligible for an appointment here. So that’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that DeSantis made a big concession. And because he’s the one who makes a call in appointing someone who’d work closely with Disney, and even has boasted about working closely with Disney and to help them and being able to work with them and why he’s a good choice. 

On the left, a sunny day at Walt Disney World Resort, on the right, the new CFTOD administrator appointment by Ron DeSantis, Stephanie Kopelousos.
Credit: Inside The Magic

And then secondly, you’ve got Stephanie Kopelousos, who was the governor’s legislative affairs director, who has also worked with Disney. Kopelousos helped to broker a carve-out for Disney and a piece of legislation targeting their status feud so that they were exempt. Disney was exempt from being told they couldn’t censor Big Tech. She has that familiarity with the Disney people. So DeSantis made some concessions there in those two appointments and that no doubt contributed to the willingness of Disney to play along with him.

That makes sense. Do you think it’s fair to say around all of that that a big part of this concession was facilitating Governor DeSantis’ ability to appoint people to the board?

Absolutely. Because when you look at Martin Garcia, who was the guiding light of the board, he quit without explanation. When I read the legal agreement that was struck between the oversight district and the board, an agreement that was signed by the vice chair of the board. I thought to myself, “Martin Garcia could never with a straight face sign that agreement.” I mean, he called Disney the “most egregious example of corporate cronyism in America.”

The language did get extreme there.

And, you know, how could he turn around and sign that agreement? My guess, and I don’t have the inside story to say this with confidence, is that’s why Garcia quit: because he could see that this agreement was coming down the pike, and he didn’t wanna be a part of it. It would be hard for him to save face inside that agreement. 

Ron DeSantis over the CFTOD logo

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I’m not saying the agreement is a mistake…but there was, it seems to me, a significant concession made on the part of the governor that facilitated that agreement. So the governor has painted it rather differently, as if it was a win for them and that the other side just had conceded. I don’t think that’s the full story.

Governor DeSantis and his representatives have definitely been spinning the settlement as a big win over Disney. He was quoted in a press conference as saying “A year ago, people were trying to act like all of these legal maneuverings were all going to succeed against the state of Florida. And the reality is here we are a year later and not one of them has succeeded.” What are what are your thoughts on his positioning?

I recall that quote from the press conference. And I thought at the time that she was tooting his own horn without justification because there were significant concessions on his part as well. And maybe that was a wise thing to do, but that’s not the DeSantis we thought we knew from the presidential campaign.

The text of the settlement between the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and Disney reads, under Stipulation 12, “This agreement shall not in any way be construed as an admission by any party that it acted wrongfully and or illegally in any manner with respect to the other party.” Do you think that jibes with what the governor is saying?

Well, no. I don’t. I think he cheated a little bit on that, which is to say that the attorneys on both sides agreed, it seemed to me, not to make the claim that he made and say that either side had won. Then he went ahead and said that he had.

Ron DeSantis with fireworks at Walt Disney World
Credit: Inside the Magic

The phrase “peace with honor” kind of comes to mind. But who knows how long that might actually last between DeSantis and Disney?

It may be that the politicians will be more likely to cheat [by] not claiming they won rather than the board members themselves. I think having someone with relevant expertise on that board makes some sense and Mateer fits that bill, and Stephanie Kopelousos as well. 

One of the criticisms that I’ve voiced in the media has been that there was only one member of the board, one of the five, who was even from Central Florida. That’s Ron Terry and he was probably the least qualified member of the board, a minister, an attorney with no background in public policy or public administration. The other not well qualified person was Bridget Ziegler. You don’t understand me now, for all the wrong reasons…

Inside the Magic’s exclusive interview with Professor Richard Foglesong will continue tomorrow!

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