Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger on Monday shot back at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis amid an escalating tussle over the company’s political positions and its ability to self-govern its expansive resorts in the Sunshine State.
During Disney’s annual shareholder meeting, which enables rank-and-file investors to chime in about the company’s practices during a question and answer session, two people complained about the Burbank entertainment giant’s alleged “woke” agenda. But another shareholder expressed concerns about how tensions in Florida with DeSantis could reverberate throughout the state.
The dispute has been simmering since Disney took a public stand a year ago on Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay legislation that limits public school curriculum. After Disney’s then-chief, Bob Chapek, said the company opposed the bill, DeSantis lashed out, leading an effort to strip the firm’s self-governing status for its parks in central Florida, which the entertainment giant has resisted by pushing its own development plan.
“A company has a right to freedom of speech just like individuals do,” Iger said during Monday’s meeting, acknowledging that DeSantis “got very angry about the position Disney took.”
The meeting marked Iger’s first annual gathering with shareholders since he returned in November after Chapek was ousted.
“It seems like he’s decided to retaliate against us, including the naming of a new board to oversee the property and the business, in effect to seek to punish a company for its exercise of a constitutional right,” Iger said. “That just seems really wrong to me.”
Iger noted that Disney is the largest taxpayer in Florida, that it employs more than 75,000 workers and that it helps bring millions of visitors to the state each year, boosting the state’s tourism. He noted the company’s relationship with the state government should be “a two-way street.”
“Our point on this is that any action that thwarts those efforts simply to retaliate for a position the company took sounds not just anti-business, but it sounds anti- Florida,” Iger said. “And I’ll just leave it at that.”
The company is celebrating its 100-year anniversary this year, as well as 50 years in Florida.
Although the meeting was held virtually, Iger pre-recorded parts of his presentation from Walt Disney World and Epcot in Orlando.
“We love the state of Florida,” Iger said, in responding to a shareholder.
“That’s reflected in not only how much we’ve invested over the last 50 years, but how much we have given back in the form of jobs and community service, taxes, tourism and other responsible business practices,” Iger said. “We’ve also always respected and appreciated what the state has done for us.”
Iger tried to strike a balance when another shareholder complained that Disney was taking a too overt role in promoting a progressive agenda, including gay themes. Iger said he was sensitive to such concerns.
The company’s programming “should not be agenda-driven, it should be entertainment-driven,” Iger said.
This is a developing story.