Disney's Influence on Florida Elections

Friday, October 05, 2012

Based on recent political contributions by Walt Disney World, we should probably be singing "It's a Republican world after all" as we glide along through a classic indoor boatride. According to the Orlando Sentinel, "Walt Disney World has spent nearly $2.5 million on political candidates and causes in Florida so far this election cycle" (as of September 27, 2012), with approximately 90% of that money going to Republican candidates or Republican-leaning interest groups.

This little factoid has been popping up in my news feeds all week, and it started to get to me. Not just because I'm a longtime Leftie (the Dems are too far Right for my tastes, thankyouverymuch), but also because I'm currently working on a Masters' degree in business. So I had to do a little poking around to understand it better.

Now, before everybody gets into a partisan snit, let's look at what's really in play: Disney's not (necessarily) aligning itself with the Republican party for any moral or ethical reasons, or to attempt to influence the US Presidential election (though such an effect could happen, given that Florida is generally recognized as a swing state). Nope, Tip O'Neill's got this one again: All politics is local. At least in part, this seems to be an attempt to prevent the development of Las Vegas-style casinos in South Florida, which presumably would hurt Disney's bottom line by wooing away some of the adult audience for Disney travel. Plus, Disney's always asked a lot of Florida's governments in general, from the establishment of the Reedy Creek Improvement District to providing incentives for soccer teams to hold spring training in Central Florida (and hey, if you're gonna train in Central Florida, what better place than Disney?).

Though Disney's historically enjoyed a close relationship with Florida government, their political spending has ramped up in recent years. And here's where I think many of us frequent Park visitors have something in common: We're tired of ticket prices which rise much faster than inflation and overpriced bottles of water. So, I wanted to see how significant a chunk of change $2.5 million is to Disney. If I had access to all the financials, I'd like to compare it to Walt Disney World's operating income. The closest I could get, through their Annual Report, is the income for their Parks and Resorts division (of which Walt Disney World is presumably a significant piece, possibly even a majority). As it turns out, $2.5 million is 0.16% of their Parks and Resorts operating income from Fiscal Year 2011, which effectively rounds down to zero. Even from this imperfect comparison, I think it's pretty clear that Walt Disney World's political spending isn't what drives up the price of my pin trading addiction. Were I a Disney shareholder, I'd be pretty easily convinced that these investments in political spending were not only good business strategy, but also so far down "in the noise" of corporate spending that I shouldn't concern myself with them. I'm sure political spending doesn't even begin to compare with Walt Disney World's air conditioning bill (just for backstage alone).

So, on the one hand, I'm left convinced that the brouhaha over Disney's political contributions are a tempest in a teapot. And on the other, I'm struck by this example of the power of large corporations in United States electoral politics. And I think I'm gonna feel just a tiny bit more jaded when I walk into my next business school class.