by Jason Garcia
Updated 8 months ago
Walt Disney World is enormous in almost every way imaginable. The resort, built across 40 square miles of former swamp land, has four theme parks, two water parks, 24,000 hotel rooms and 3,000 timeshare units. It employs 74,000 workers, and its parks draw an estimated 58 million visits annually. The company generates more than $700 million annually in sales, property and other tax revenue for the state, Orange County, the Orange County school district and for special local government entities that it controls.
About a decade ago, Disney’s executives decided there was one place Disney wasn’t big enough: The Florida Capitol.
By virtue of its size and economic importance, Disney has always been an influential voice in state politics. But the company had found itself on the losing end in a series of lobbying battles — among them, a fight with the National Rifle Association about whether employees could bring guns to work.
Disney also battled with personal-injury attorneys about whether parents could sign away the liability rights of their children and with counties and hotel chains about how online travel companies should be taxed.
Since 2010, Disney has ramped up its political spending to make sure it doesn’t get outpunched by its rivals. During the 2010 election cycle, the company spent $2.1 million on state elections in Florida, including donations to candidates, state parties, political committees and constitutional amendment campaigns. That was as much as the company had donated in the three previous election cycles combined. Over the next six years, Disney nearly tripled that spending — to $4 million in 2012, $5.2 million in 2014 and $5.7 million in 2016.
Then came 2018. Records show Disney and its assorted corporate entities — from Magic Kingdom Inc. to the Celebration Co. — spent $28.3 million during the cycle. It’s a notable sum even for a company as large as Disney, whose worldwide parks and resorts business generated about $4.5 billion in operating income in fiscal 2018.
It’s also one of the largest amounts a single entity has ever spent on state elections in Florida history, according to Florida Trend research. (Among the small number who have ever spent more: Former Gov. Rick Scott, who shelled out roughly $70 million of his own money on his first run for governor in 2010.)
This doesn’t include what Disney spends on lobbying. The company, which has seven lobbying firms under contract in Tallahassee, paid them between $310,000 and $570,000 total last year, according to public-disclosure records. Disney also employs an in-house government relations team whose compensation is not disclosed.
Disney won’t discuss its campaign spending or its legislative agenda in detail. “We engage in the political process, and our public policy priorities align with the critical role we play in Florida’s economy,” says Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler.
By far the biggest driver of Disney’s 2018 campaign spending was Amendment 3, which is designed to prevent any new Las Vegas-style casinos in Florida. The issue is clearly a top priority for Disney, which has spent years battling casino giants such as Genting and Las Vegas Sands in the Florida Legislature. Disney spent just over $20 million pushing the ballot measure, which passed with 71.5% of the vote. (The Seminole Tribe spent $25 million supporting Amendment 3.)
Even without the money Disney spent to keep out casinos, the company’s campaign contributions spiked in 2018. Not counting spending related to Amendment 3, Disney spent roughly $7.7 million on Florida elections — a 35% increase compared to what it spent in 2016.
That puts Disney — which operates cruise ships and timeshares in addition to its giant Central Florida resort — in an elite circle of political donors. Disney’s non-gambling spending, for instance, was a little less than what U.S. Sugar ($10.7 million) and Florida Power & Light parent NextEra Energy ($8.7 million) spent. It spent much more than Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson ($3.5 million), Publix Super Markets ($2.4 million), private-prison operator Geo Group ($2.4 million) and Universal Orlando parent Comcast ($2 million).
Disney’s 2018 spending included $1 million on Amendment 2, which keeps a tax cap in place that limits increases in the taxable value of commercial and other non-homestead property from rising more than 10% per year. Records show Disney was by far the largest donor to a Florida Chamber of Commerce-backed political committee used to promote the amendment. The cap saved Disney more than $6 million last year alone through reduced property tax payments to Orange County and the South Florida Water Management District.
Disney was also one of the biggest banks for Florida politicians. About $5 million of the 2018 spending went directly to candidates, their political committees or the political parties. (Disney’s true spending on legislative campaigns was even higher because the company also gave to third-party political groups that then gave to campaigns — a tactic frequently used to mask the identities of donors paying for controversial attack ads.)
About three of every four dollars of that $5 million went to Republicans, who control majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office.
Under the radar
As prominent as Disney has made itself on the campaign trail, lawmakers who have worked with the company say it still tries hard to maintain a low profile while lobbying — to avoid having its brand linked with potentially controversial public policies.
Disney, for example, has exerted “significant influence” on the Legislature to not pass a law requiring employers to use the e-Verify system to ensure they aren’t employing undocumented workers, says former Senate President Don Gaetz, a Republican from Okaloosa County.
“They weren’t holding press conferences about it. Instead, they were pointing out what I would consider to be legitimate issues — like here’s the error rate, here’s where e-Verify failed to work in a particular state or industry. They were into the workability issues,” says Gaetz.
Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican from Hillsborough County and a former Senate president, says Disney has “a tendency to work through the Chamber of Commerce or AIF or those umbrella organizations — as many groups do — to try to cloak their involvement in the process.”
Cloaked or not, the company enjoyed a number of successes in the 2019 legislative session.
Late in the session, as lawmakers finalized a broad tax package, Disney — working through the Florida Retail Federation — persuaded lawmakers to add an extra sales-tax break that will help big retailers who order too much inventory and wind up not selling it all.
Retailers generally don’t have to pay sales tax when they order inventory because they are planning to resell it to consumers. The sale to consumers is the transaction that’s supposed to be taxed. But retailers must pay the tax on whatever they don’t sell, since they have become the end user of the product.
Disney has for years donated its leftover inventory to charities. So the company persuaded the Legislature to create a sales tax exemption for the leftover inventory that goes to charity. Economists expect the new tax break will save retailers about $5 million a year. Disney won’t say how much it expects to save itself.
Disney also worked quietly to reshape a bill, which it objected to in 2018, that would have exposed hotel operators to civil lawsuits if they failed to do enough to prevent human trafficking.
Sen. Lauren Book, a Broward County Democrat, worked closely with the company this year to rewrite the legislation. The provisions dealing with hotels were changed to require hotels to train certain workers to spot and report signs of potential trafficking — but it also explicitly said that inadequate training was not grounds for a lawsuit. Book says she worked with Disney lobbyists on details such as which hotel workers needed to be trained. With Disney on board, the legislation passed this spring.
“They helped us to really pinpoint, I think, the things that we really wanted to curb and they worked in good faith to make things happen,” Book says.
Another example of Disney’s influence came with an obscure transportation bill supported by the road-building industry this spring. The legislation was sparked by controversies in Southwest Florida, where Cape Coral and Lee County set their own standards for the kinds of aggregates — crushed rock, limestone, coquina and other materials — that contractors could use in road projects.
The road-building industry began lobbying lawmakers to pre-empt that power and require all local governments to follow the Florida Department of Transportation’s standards. But that alarmed officials at the Reedy Creek Improvement District — the Disney-controlled government that, among other things, oversees the road network at Disney World.
John Classe, Reedy Creek’s district administrator, says his agency requires a different asphalt mix than FDOT because Reedy Creek’s roads handle more heavy vehicles than typical state roads because of all the Disney buses ferrying tourists between hotels and theme parks. Reedy Creek worried that it might be prohibited from using that formula if the road builders’ legislation passed. Reedy Creek alerted Disney’s lobbyists, who got the Legislature to include an exception.
The bill ultimately passed, requiring cities and counties — but not Reedy Creek — to follow FDOT’s lead.
Disney even won some changes in state rules for how tourist venues manage all the stuff — from hats to strollers to phones — that visitors lose or leave behind. Generally, businesses are supposed to alert law enforcement and must hold on to lost property for 90 days before they can dispose of it. But that has become cumbersome for Disney — and for Universal Orlando, Central Florida’s other big theme-park resort — which must devote lots of warehouse space simply to holding lost-and-found items.
Disney helped write a bill establishing new rules for theme parks, hotels and some other commercial venues that requires them to hold the property for just 30 days and then donate it directly to charity.
The bill didn’t make it out of committee last year, but lawmakers made the lost-and-found bill one of the very first pieces of legislation to pass this spring. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law before session was even over.
Disney, for its part, was clearly pleased by the session. On the final day, about an hour before lawmakers adjourned for their traditional end-of-session sine die ceremony, Disney lobbyist Adam Babington texted Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Polk County Republican who is one of the company’s closest allies in the Legislature and had worked on both the sales tax break for donated inventory and the lost-and-found legislation.
“Thank you for everything this session!” Babington texted Stargel. “We appreciate it!”
THE LOBBY KING
Some of the people who call the shots in Disney’s lobbying operation:
Senior vice president, communications and public affairs
A Disney veteran of more than two decades, Langley oversees government and industry relations, communications, public relations and corporate responsiblity for both Disney World and the company’s parks and resorts division, including Florida-based cruise and timeshare businesses. A former news reporter and spokeswoman for the American Automobile Association, Langley represents Disney on the board of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
Vice president, external affairs
A well-known figure in Tallahassee, Babington leads Disney World’s government relations and corporate responsibility teams. Babington joined Disney in 2011 after nearly six years as a lobbyist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
Director, government and industry relations
Gonzalez joined Disney in September 2018. But he’s a longtime fixture in the Florida Capitol, where he was an Anheuser-Busch lnBev lobbyist for nearly seven years and a lobbyist for Associated Industries of Florida for a decade before that. He’s the day-to-day manager of Disney’s lobbying team.
Director, external affairs
Ancora-Brown came to Disney in July 2018 after four years in the administration of former Florida Gov. Rick Scott. She’s the day-today manager of Disney’s corporate responsibility team. She was chief of staff at the Florida Department of Revenue and served as a deputy policy director in the executive office of the governor and communications director for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Manager, government relations
A Disney lobbyist for the past five years, Adams also came to Disney from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, where she was a lobbyist for four years. She’s Disney’s primary state legislative lobbyist.
Manager, government relations
Sekula is Disney’s primary lobbyist when it comes to working local governments in Central Florida. A former Republican Party of Florida campaign staffer, Sekula joined Disney in 2016 after lobbying for the Greater Orlando Builders Association and the PACE Center for Girls.
MICKEY’S FAVORITE LAWMAKERS
Here are some of the Florida lawmakers who have received the most money from Disney. The totals include donations to their individual campaign accounts and their political committees (which can accept unlimited donations), as well as free hotel rooms, theme park tickets, food and other items given as “in-kind” donations.
Sen. Wilton Simpson
$218,000, plus $977.38 worth of freebies
- Nobody in the Legislature has benefited more from Disney’s largesse than Simpson, a Republican from Pasco County who is in line to become Senate president after the 2020 elections. In fact, just about the entire business lobby is excited about Simpson, who is seen as one of the most reliably business-friendly legislators in the state — which makes him something of a rarity in the Florida Senate, where Senate presidents have historically been less accommodating to companies than House Speakers.
Sen. Bill Galvano
$120,000, plus $6,081 worth of freebies
- As the current Senate president, Galvano, a Republican from Bradenton, has power over the entire legislative process. He and Disney haven’t always seen eye-to-eye on gambling, but Galvano was an important ally for Disney this past session in saving Visit Florida, the state’s publicly subsidized tourism advertising agency.
Rep. Chris Sprowls
- Disney has had to battle both House Speaker Jose Oliva and his predecessor Richard Corcoran, both of whom attempted to wipe out Visit Florida. The company hopes for better relations with Sprowls, a Tampa-area Republican who will become Speaker after the 2020 elections.
Sen. Kelli Stargel
$21,000, plus $15,190.89 worth of freebies
- Stargel, a Republican from Lakeland, is one of Disney’s go-to legislators. This session alone, she helped the company get a sales-tax break on leftover merchandise that it donates to charity and looser rules on how it must dispose of items that people leave behind on its property.
Sen. Oscar Braynon
- One of the Democrats Disney likes most is Braynon, a senator from Miami who served as minority leader from 2016-18 and remains an important voice in the Democratic caucus.
Former Sen. Dana Young
- Disney spent heavily to help Young, a Tampa Republican who narrowly lost re-election in the most expensive and intensely fought legislative race in the state last year. In fact, big chunks of Disney’s donations to Simpson’s and Galvano’s political committees, as well the company’s even larger contributions to the Republican Party of Florida, were likely spent on Young’s re-election campaign. Even though she lost, Young landed on her feet — Gov. Ron DeSantis named her CEO of Visit Florida.
Read more in Florida Trend's August issue.
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