DeSantis appointees accuse Disney district predecessors of cronyism; Disney calls them revisionist

Minnie and Mickey Mouse perform for guests during a musical show in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Friday, July 14, 2023, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Minnie and Mickey Mouse perform for guests during a musical show in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Friday, July 14, 2023, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
AP Photo/John Raoux, File

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appointees to Walt Disney World’s governing district released a series of reports Wednesday justifying their takeover and accusing their Disney-controlled predecessors of being a part of “the most egregious exhibition of corporate cronyism in modern American history.”

The reports commissioned by the Florida governor’s appointees to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, or CFTOD, were the latest salvos in the ongoing court and public opinion battles between Disney and DeSantis over who controls the district. The governing body provides municipal services such as planning, mosquito control and firefighting in the roughly 40 square miles (100 square kilometers) in central Florida that make up Disney World.

“Disney has put forth a fairy tale that the prior government was a model of good governance. This audit shows that wasn’t true,” David Thompson, an attorney hired by the district, said during a board meeting Wednesday. “The prior model was indeed a failure.”

The feud started last year after Disney publicly opposed the state’s so-called don’t say gay law, which bans classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. The law was championed by DeSantis, who is running for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. In retaliation, DeSantis and Republican legislators took over the district Disney had controlled for more than five decades and installed five board members loyal to the governor.

Disney, DeSantis, and the district have taken their fight to state and federal courts. A hearing is scheduled for next week in the federal case, in which Disney accuses DeSantis of violating the company’s free speech rights.

In a statement, Disney called the new reports “revisionist history.”

“It is neither objective nor credible, and only seeks to advance CFTOD’s interests in its wasteful litigation that could derail investment within the district,” the company said. “Further, it does not change the fact that the CFTOD board was appointed by the governor to punish Disney for exercising its Constitutional right to free speech.”

Disney also said in the statement that the reports were released as the DeSantis-friendly district government faces its own accusations of cronyism and mismanagement. More than 10% of the district’s 370-employees have left their jobs since the takeover, with many saying in exit interviews that the district has been politicized and is now permeated by cronyism.

One of DeSantis’ board appointees, Bridget Ziegler, also is under fire after a woman recently made a rape accusation against her husband, Christian Ziegler, the chairman of Florida’s Republican Party. Beyond the possibility of criminal charges for Christian Ziegler, he and his wife, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, are being called out for hypocrisy after admitting to a sexual relationship together with the accuser even though they very publicly have fought against LGBTQ+ rights.

Bridget Ziegler, who also is a Sarasota County School Board member, attended Wednesday’s meeting remotely. Board members didn’t address her situation directly when Debie McDonald, who lives in the neighboring community of Celebration, said during public comments that Ziegler’s hypocrisy should disqualify her from serving.

District spokesman Matthew Oberly said in an email Wednesday that there was no change in Ziegler’s status at this time.

The main report, which the district prepared for DeSantis and legislators, takes to task the way the government was operated before the takeover, claiming it was a “corporate subsidiary” of Disney rather than an independent governing body, with the appearance of conflict of interest rampant.

Disney cultivated the employees of the governing district through complimentary annual passes to its theme parks and steep discounts, which were worth millions of dollars each year, the main report says. The new board cut that perk earlier this year.

The district’s new administrator, Glen Gilzean, told employees they must pay $2 million in back taxes for the season passes. However, he said in a memo that the district told the IRS it would cover the back taxes.

“It didn’t seem fair that our great employees should be hit with several thousand dollars,” Gilzean said at Wednesday’s meeting.

The main report also describes the government run by Disney supporters as “an entity that fueled the rise and shielded the dominance of a company at the expense of the public good.”

“Its revelations are, simply put, shocking,” the report says.