Florida politicians are getting special access to a galaxy far, far away this Friday, but an ethics watchdog has a bad feeling about this.
Florida politicians are getting special access to a galaxy far, far away this Friday, but an ethics watchdog and even some lawmakers have a bad feeling about this.
Walt Disney World invited state legislators and other officeholders to a “community leader preview” for its highly anticipated Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction. It’s the hottest ticket in town not yet available to the general public.
The event at Disney’s Hollywood Studios isn’t free, with invitees needing to have RSVP’d by Aug. 7 and pay $170, plus $25 parking, to attend the three-hour preview.
Once inside, guests can “experience your own Star Wars adventure in Black Spire Outpost on the planet Batuu, where you’ll have a chance to fly the Millennium Falcon, take a swig of Blue Milk, discover galactic treasures and much more,” according to the invitation.
State ethics laws are strict about what public officials and employees can accept, stating they can’t “solicit or accept anything of value to the recipient, including a gift, loan, reward, promise of future employment, favor, or service, based upon any understanding that [their] vote, official action, or judgment … would be influenced thereby.”
Although officials will have to pay to attend, the event is still providing a glimpse at an attraction only available right now to “platinum” Disney annual pass holders in advance of the Aug. 29 grand opening.
Disney, the biggest corporation in Florida, spent $28 million on state elections during the 2018 cycle. Lawmakers have weighed in on issues ranging from casino gambling – which Disney fiercely opposes – to sales tax exemptions, and even to whether the company still has the 1960s-granted right to build a nuclear power plant.
County and city officials also deal with Disney on a regular basis.
Ben Wilcox, research director of the watchdog group Integrity Florida, was “queasy” about the event, saying it “violates the spirit [of the law], if not the law.”
“It may technically be legal, and it may not constitute a ‘gift’ that they would not be able to accept, but it raises questions,” Wilcox said. “Will lobbyists and corporate officials have access and influence at this event with legislators and elected officials? I think people are right to look at the appearance of what this event is and take that into consideration.”
Florida residents, he said, "don’t like public officials not just getting gifts, but [getting] special treatment, special benefits that otherwise aren’t available to most of the general public.”
Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan was among the politicians who declined to attend.
“I decided not to go because it would not be fair to people who would not have the opportunity,” Sheehan said in an email.
Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler said Galaxy’s Edge “is a $1 billion project that created over 7,000 jobs in our state. Elected officials are under no obligation [to come], though if they choose to, we clearly outline the cost and ensure those with ethics restrictions follow the law.”
Prior to opening a new attraction, Wahler said, “it’s important for local and state leaders to become familiar with our product and the economic impact of our investment in Florida.”
Exactly how many people were invited to the event is unclear. The Orlando Sentinel asked every state legislator whether they had received the invitation, and while several of Disney’s nearby Central Florida lawmakers did, others didn’t.
Among those who responded to the Sentinel, state Reps. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, Joy Goff-Marcil, D-Maitland, Geraldine Thompson, D-Winter Garden, and state Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando – all from Disney’s home base of Orange County – got invitations but declined to go. But so did state Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, and state Reps. Wyman Duggan, R-Jacksonville, and Toby Overdorf, R-Palm City, all based far from Orlando.
State Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, state Sen. and GOP chair Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, Senate President Bill Galvano, R- Bartow, and state Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, all said they didn’t get invites.
State Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, was the only state legislator to say she was definitely going.
“FYI, I did buy two tickets and no taxpayer dollars will be spent on this event,” Stargell said in an email. “One of my assistants, who has had a second job at Disney for over a decade, had the opportunity to attend with employees last week and said it’s a wonderful attraction. I’m looking forward to attending.”
Thompson said she would be out of town on Friday, but said she saw no issue with anyone attending.
“There's a cost to attend, which would mean ethics laws wouldn't be violated,” Thompson said.
But other lawmakers said from their point of view, the offer was concerning.
Eskamani acknowledged she is “a HUGE Star Wars fan,” she said via text. “Han Solo was actually my first crush.”
But, she added, “I understand the impact tourism has on our economy – I don’t need a sneak peek or ‘behind the scenes’ tour to know that. … I have invited Disney to meet with us at our legislative office if they ever wish to discuss their legislative priorities with us, but as we saw during the 2019 session, it seems Disney would rather toss their priorities into other bills.”
Sabatini and Pizzo said they often take tours of institutions or businesses when it’s helpful, but Pizzo said his office has “a very strict rule about accepting anything of value, and we don’t attend events unless we pay full price for entry/tickets.”
Among local officials, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Comptroller Phil Diamond said they would be attending the preview. Disney has contributed $45,000 to a political action committee tied to Dyer’s re-election campaign, state records show.
Cassandra Lafser, a spokeswoman for Dyer, said the city’s legal office reviewed it and found no conflicts with its ethics policy. The mayor will be reporting it as a gift, she said.
Dyer and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings have already seen Galaxy’s Edge, previewing it with kids from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Florida, according to tweets from Demings’ account. Demings could not be reached for comment.
Staff writers Chabeli Herrera and Jason Garcia contributed to this report.
Correction: A prior version incorrectly stated Disney’s spending. Disney spent $28 million on state elections in the 2018 cycle. It also contained an incorrect spelling of state Sen. Kelli Stargel’s name.