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Disney CEO disputes DeSantis on 'sexualizing children'

Disney CEO Bob Iger speaks onstage at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California.
Amy Sussman
Getty Images
Disney CEO Bob Iger speaks onstage at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California.

Disney CEO Bob Iger dismissed as “preposterous” arguments by Gov. Ron DeSantis that the company is “sexualizing children” or experiencing a drop in attendance at its Florida resorts because of a long-running fight with the governor.

Appearing Thursday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” Iger also defended the company’s right to question a 2022 Florida law that restricted instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in schools. The company’s opposition to the law sparked the feud with DeSantis and his Republican allies in the Legislature.

“The last thing that I want for the company is for the company to be drawn into any culture wars,” Iger said. “We've operated for almost 100 years as a company making product that we actually are proud of in terms of its impact on the world. I joke every once in a while we're there to manufacture fun.”

DeSantis has made the dispute with Disney part of his campaign to win the Republican presidential nomination, repeatedly accusing the entertainment giant of supporting the "sexualization" of children.

During an appearance last month in North Carolina, DeSantis said “we will do battle with anybody who seeks to rob our children of their innocence."

Iger said the company’s goal is to “tell wonderful stories and have a positive impact on the world.”

“We are a pre-eminent entertainer in the world,” Iger said. “And we're proud of our track record there. The notion that Disney is in any way sexualizing children quite frankly is preposterous and inaccurate.”

Disney filed a federal lawsuit this spring that, in part, accuses the state of retaliating against it. Also, Orange County Circuit Judge Margaret Schreiber will hold a hearing Friday in a separate state-court lawsuit tied to the Disney-DeSantis fight.

Both cases involve a move early this year by DeSantis and lawmakers to replace the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which had benefited Disney for decades. DeSantis and the GOP-controlled Legislature approved a law that did away with the Reedy Creek board and gave DeSantis authority to appoint members of the successor Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board.

The cases also involve development agreements that Disney and the former Reedy Creek board signed shortly before the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board took over. The Legislature and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board have taken steps to invalidate the agreements.

During the CNBC appearance Thursday, Iger, who received a two-year contract extension this week from the Disney board, disputed a Wall Street Journal report about decreased theme-park attendance.

Iger pointed to factors such as a 100-degree temperature on the day attendance was measured and an increase in competition after COVID-19 restrictions were fully lifted across the country.

"This is kind of complicated, but Florida opened up early during COVID. And they created huge demand and didn't have competition because there were a number of other places, states that were not open yet," Iger said. "So, if you look at the numbers in Florida in 2023 ... versus 2022, where not as much was open, Florida was the only game in town, there's a lot more competition today. So, against 2022, the state of Florida has been down. We actually track hotel tax revenue across the state, which is a matter of public record, and there are counties in Florida that have been down 6, 7 percent recently."

Iger said prices at parks are “not an issue.” After long serving as Disney CEO and then stepping down, Iger returned to the post in November. He replaced Bob Chapek, who publicly opposed the 2022 Florida law.

During a radio appearance Monday on “The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show,” DeSantis contended Disney’s stances on issues have hindered the company’s sales.

"I think that it is impacting parents' willingness to take their kids to Disney stuff," DeSantis said.

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