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Florida Politics: Universal Studios & Disney Guilty of “Pay-For-Play” and We’re Not Talking About Lightning Lane

political parties universal disney
Credit: Universal/Becky Burkett/Canva

Florida theme parks have been giving perks of all kinds to Florida lawmakers, and lawmakers return the favor in various legislative forms. But everything comes at a cost, and in this “pay-for-play tradition,” who ultimately pays the price?

Florida theme parks are reportedly notorious for doling out freebies to legislators in the Sunshine State. Free hotel accommodations, free meals at the theme parks, and park passes are among the loot awarded to legislators in Florida, and it’s happening on both sides of the aisle as Democrats and the GOP have participated (as have both Universal Studios and Disney).

disney world and universal studios orlando resort

Credit: Disney/Universal/Canva

A GOP Event Nets Universal Studios Huge Tax Breaks

This year will kick off with the GOP’s annual event, which will be held at Universal Studios Orlando. The event will reportedly see Republican House members “invite lobbyists to bring campaign checks to Orlando and frolic alongside the lawmakers.”

According to Scott Maxwell with the Orlando Sentinel, such a display “may be one of the few things a theme park can do to make itself less attractive to families—fill it with Florida legislators and their lobbyist pals.”

universal orlando GOP event

Credit: Republican House Majority

The event, known as the Universal Orlando Event benefiting the Republican House Majority, kicks off on April 19 and runs through the 21st at Universal Studios Orlando. Beginning April 19, Universal Orlando will host GOP lawmakers at the event. During the 2023 event, Universal Orlando handed out more than $160,000 in free meals, rooms, and park tickets to lawmakers.

Then, following the 2023 event, lawmakers changed their minds about making Universal Orlando Resort pay its full amount of taxes, permitting the theme park resort to hold on to a tax break that was originally intended for impoverished communities in Florida.

wizarding world harry potter universal

Credit: Universal Orlando Resort

Per the law, however, public officials are prohibited from accepting freebies like these from special interest groups, and as such, they can technically be arrested for doing so. In light of this fact, however, Florida’s lawmakers have found a way to get around the rule by allowing theme parks like Universal Studios to give those freebies to the political parties themselves.

The parties then hand out the loot to the politicians. Yes, they’ve devised a creative–and legalized–version of laundering.

In 2023, Universal Studios Orlando Resort reported that it gave the Republican Party of Florida in-kind donations totaling $168,379 for “event expenses.”

“Ridiculous” Tax Breaks to Follow

Universal Studios Orlando Resort has done very well for itself in the area of tax breaks–some of them extremely ridiculous tax breaks.

Maxwell writes that “Florida’s Urban High-Crime Area Job Tax Credit Program was created to encourage businesses to invest in impoverished communities, which desperately need things like grocery stores and high-paying jobs.

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando Resort

Credit: Loews/Universal

In reality, Universal and its hotel partners gobbled up 75% of all the tax credits awarded in the entire state from 2014 to 2022. That’s more than $9 million for building luxury hotels and multimillion-dollar attractions on well-manicured park property where the biggest crime may be the cost of a fast pass.

In short, Universal Studios was awarded tax dollars to build various new additions to its Central Florida theme park resort. Maxwell says if think that the resort actually needed those tax dollars to give Harry Potter a boost inside the Wizarding World, “you’ve been drinking too much Butterbeer.”

butterbeer

Credit: Universal Studios/Canva

Maxwell opines further:

Everybody in Florida politics admits this is a scam — that, even if some of Universal’s land was blighted decades ago, it hasn’t been for a long time. So taxpayers are now just subsidizing the profit margins of an already profitable corporation that isn’t doing anything to help blighted neighborhoods.

In fact, every time the Orlando Sentinel has confronted lawmakers, they admit it’s a wasteful boondoggle. House Speaker Paul Renner has been claiming he’s eager to ax the program for the better part of a decade. Just last year, House Bill 5 was supposed to end Universal’s taxpayer-funded gravy train.

But then, after the spotlights fade, legislators always do an about-face and allow Universal to keep gorging at the taxpayer trough . . . followed by Universal once again showering the parties with free hotel rooms and park tickets. See a pattern?

But regardless of the type of tax break, the truth remains that those breaks always come at a cost–for someone. When Universal Studios gets a tax break of $1 million, Florida must cut services valued at that amount–or make up the taxes elsewhere.

Democrats (and Disney) Are Guilty, Too

Don’t misunderstand the message here. It’s not just Republicans in Florida. Over the years, Florida’s theme parks have been kind to both parties.

Related: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson Says He Won’t Endorse Either Candidate in the 2024 Presidential Election

political parties

Credit: Canva

The difference is that Democrats don’t have the same influence in Tallahassee that their Republican counterparts do. As such, they don’t amass the same amount of that kindness. In fact, in recent years, they’ve gotten about 20% of the amount Republicans have been given in Florida by Universal Studios.

Universal isn’t alone, either. Disney World plays the game in Florida too, and has given money to both parties as well. In 2021, Disney gave Florida Democrats nearly $115,000 in free food, beverages, and hotel rooms to assist them in hosting their annual event. Dems will return to Disney World’s Contemporary Resort for their 2024 Leadership Blue conference, to be held May 3-5.

Contemporary resort at night

Credit: Disney

Do you think that “giving” of this kind should be completely prohibited–and that legislation should plug up the loophole that allows such activity? Let us know in the comments below.

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!

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