A war of words — and regulation — escalated this week when a board, hand-picked by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, endorsed an audit alleging Disney World for decades used free park perks to improperly influence public officials and employees tasked with the oversight of the park.
The audit claimed Disney gave complimentary annual passes and steep discounts to the public employees, calling the perks “akin to bribes.”
A review of campaign finance records shows that some of Disney’s scrutinized perks have also long been enjoyed by Florida’s top politicians, even including DeSantis, who has been at war with Disney since the company’s CEO criticized his controversial “Parental Rights in Education” bill in 2022.
DeSantis, according to state records, benefited from $6,809 worth of Disney food and beverage donated to his political action committee in 2019. His committee also received $100,000 in cash donations from Disney between 2019 and 2021.
The Republican Party of Florida also reported approximately $850,000 worth of in-kind Disney donations since 2014, including hotel rooms, park tickets, food, beverages, event space and other items listed as “entertainment,” according to campaign finance disclosures.
Former Gov. Rick Scott, now Florida’s junior senator, also reported a $252,503 in-kind PAC contribution from Disney in 2015, which campaign filings indicated was donated for travel, food and beverages.
The Florida Democratic Party reported $1.4 million worth of in-kind donations from Disney since 2014, including lodging, tickets, event space, food and beverages.
“This is not a secret,” said former Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes. “There are no secrets, really, in Tallahassee, as it relates to one of your largest economic engines facilitating events on their properties.”
When it comes to influence in the statehouse, Brandes said, “Disney is the mouse that roars.”
DeSantis pledged to reel in Disney’s influence in 2022 and he replaced its oversight board, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, with a similar board filled with his hand-picked appointees, named the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.
Bryan Griffin, the press secretary for DeSantis’ presidential campaign, told NBC News that the fact DeSantis’ political committee took money from Disney “only goes to show that he is not beholden to any donor, no matter how big or powerful they are.”
The CFTOD’s audit of its Disney-friendly predecessors — and the subsequent public meeting to air its criticisms — accused the theme park of bending and breaking rules ever since Roy Disney helped secure the favorable Reedy Creek Improvement Act from Florida’s Legislature in 1967.
The report detailed how Disney provided previous board members and employees with free annual family passes to Disney World and steep discounts on Disney cruises, food and merchandise.
In a statement, Disney called the audit “an exercise in revisionist history” that was “neither objective nor credible.”
It also wrote, “the CFTOD board was appointed by the governor to punish Disney for exercising its Constitutional right to free speech.”
Disney has not made any substantial donations to Florida politicians or committees since the passage of the Parental Rights in Education bill last spring.
But since 2014, state records show the company has donated more than $43 million worth of cash and in-kind considerations to state-level politicians and political committees — plus millions more spent on lobbying.
“This is not something that I think should shock or amaze people,” Brandes said, adding the influence can help large corporations ensure a seat at the table on important issues.
“If you look around the state of Florida, there are a variety of different organizations offering [in-kind donations],” Brandes continued. “It’s not like Universal doesn’t do the same thing, or the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association through their resorts or properties…[because] the political parties are asking for these favors.”
According to state election records, Universal Studios and affiliated subsidiaries provided $1.8 million worth of in-kind donations to political parties and candidates since 2014, via donated lodging, tickets, food/beverage, and other entertainment, the records show.
NBCUniversal, the parent company of both Universal Studios and NBC, did not immediately return requests for comment.
Neither the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District nor the Republican Party of Florida provided additional comments, either.