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When Fighting Disney, Anaheim Is Much Tougher Than DeSantis



The Walt Disney Company faces pressure on two fronts: Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida and Anaheim city officials in California. (AP File)
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How best to fight Mickey Mouse?

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Joe Mathews


Florida’s strategy for battling the Walt Disney Company is making national news because it is driven by the culture war and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential ambitions. California’s strategy is little-known because it’s grounded in local concerns in Anaheim.

Contrary to conventional wisdom — that the best defense is good offense — the Anaheim strategy is more likely to succeed.

This is because Florida’s fight resembles nothing so much as Pickett’s Charge, the frontal, ill-considered attack that cost the Confederates the Battle of Gettysburg.

DeSantis declared war on Disney after the company opposed his legislation, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, restricting teachers from talking about sexual orientation and gender in Florida classrooms.

The governor thought that fighting Disney would boost his Republican support. Instead, he’s cratering. Why? Because he’s launched a cultural attack on the world’s most popular producer of culture. Even Donald Trump criticized the governor’s attacks on Disney as excessive.

Instead of changing course, DeSantis dug his hole deeper — trying to strip Disney of control over the local entity governing  Disney World. Predictably, Disney — with better lawyers than Florida state government — is winning its legal battle with the governor.

Anaheim’s $1 Billion Subsidy for Disney

DeSantis’ attacks were so ham-handed that he made Disney, a major international corporation, seem sympathetic. Disney is now exploiting that sympathy in Anaheim — in service of an expansion plan called DisneylandForward.

Disney has all but owned Anaheim since Disneyland’s 1955 opening. The company has used gifts, investment promises, philanthropy, and lobbying and political power to secure a suite of subsidies too long to list here. The L.A. Times has estimated Anaheim’s support for Disney at $1 billion.

But in the previous decade, some civic leaders — including former Mayor Tom Tait and former councilmember Jose Moreno — got elected despite Disney’s political opposition. In office, they slowed, and in a few cases reversed, giveaways to Disney.

The Anaheim strategy most closely resembles Foreign Service Officer George Kennan’s approach to global communism — containment. Politicians avoided frontal assaults on  Disney. In fact, they tried to deemphasize Disney controversies — and emphasize the needs of local neighborhoods.

In the process, they managed to quietly contain Disney’s more aggressive expansion ideas.

Newsom Sides With Disney, Goes After DeSantis

When the House of Mouse first proposed DisneylandForward in 2021, it went nowhere, with city officials unwilling to prioritize it. In fact, Anaheim has limited Disney’s geographic footprint to where it stood in the 1990s.

But the door to expansion is reopening, with city government in turmoil because of a corruption scandal. Disney-backed candidates also won recent elections. Now, Gov. Gavin Newsom, who sees Disney as an ally in his own political war with DeSantis, has publicly supported DisneylandForward.

Newsom’s logic here is clear — the enemy (Disney) of my enemy (DeSantis) is my friend. But the governor’s support of Disney (he’s even touting a company-funded economic study) is a mistake, one that may make it harder for Anaheim leaders to negotiate a fair deal with the theme park.

DisneylandForward would give Disney far more control over what happens inside the resort area. That would allow it to squeeze in new attractions like “Frozen” land, a theme park rendition of Zootopia, or a TRON rollercoaster.

Disney Making Anaheim Concessions

But the plan is modest in other ways, reflecting the company’s recognition that it no longer has the sway it once had in Anaheim. DisneylandForward specifically rules out any additions to the company’s Anaheim footprint, for example. The plan is also full of detailed promises of what the House of Mouse will do for the city and its workers — union contractors for future development, local hire rules, a new workforce development program focused on Anaheim’s young people, and company support for affordable housing projects (which Disney has opposed in the past).

To win support, Disney is doing far more than internal lobbying — it is appealing directly to the community. This summer, Disney is hosting community meetings in city parks — the free kind, with green space and playgrounds and pools, not to be confused with the ticketed one — all over Anaheim.

Even with all this effort, DisneylandForward is no sure thing.  Patient containment is a winning strategy. And Anaheim is much tougher than Ron DeSantis.

About the Author

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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