Disney intensifies fight against gaming in Florida

Disney reinvented tourism in Florida over 60 years ago and to this day, is the world’s largest media conglomerate in terms of revenue. Leading the fight against casino expansion in the Sunshine State, the House of Mouse looks to phase out slot games associated with its Star Wars and Marvel brands.

One of the largest and best-known studios in Hollywood, Walt Disney Studios acquired Marvel for $4.64bn in 2009 and purchased the rights to the Star Wars production company Lucasfilm for $4.05bn in 2012. A plan to discontinue land-based and interactive slots, as well as state lottery tickets linked to the brands has been in place for some time but only recently made public.

“Marvel discontinued plans to initiate or renew slot machine licensing arrangements as part of its integration with Disney. The handful of remaining license agreements have expiration dates within the next few years,” a Disney spokeswoman told the NY Times, arguing that gambling associations tarnish the global reputation of Disney and Florida as a family tourist destination.

As well as inhibiting future slot machines from branding Disney-related characters, including a new Star Wars trilogy in the pipeline, the mass media conglomerate is going all out on its campaign to prevent legalised casinos outside of Indian reservations in Florida. No Casinos anti-casino group was formed to tackle the issue, which many analysts suggest was funded by Disney.

The idea of bringing destination resorts to the state was introduced in late 2011 when lawmakers filed legislation for three large-scale casino properties. A number of operators immediately responded with plans, including Genting, which proposed the world’s largest casino for Miami. However, lobbying efforts by No Casinos kept legislation from passing and forced Genting to revaluate plans, using its acquired waterfront land for a non-gaming tourism project.

Casino companies are ready to make sizable investments in Florida, which would create revenue and new jobs for the community, as well as inject a new source of adult entertainment. Operators have scouted locations in Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Tampa and particularly Miami, a pinnacle point between the Americas and with a hotel infrastructure to support overflow during special events.

Disney however, is worried that a significant increase in competition would drive visitation and revenue away from its theme parks, and wants to keep the lion’s share of the Florida convention market. In addition to speculatively funding or establishing No Casinos, Disney has put money into campaign coffers of Florida politicians. Since 2012, the company has reportedly donated $1.7m to Florida’s Republican Party and $759,000 to the Democratic opposition.

Other interested parties have joined the fight to keep commercial casinos at bay, including the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which operates seven casinos in the state. It has an agreement for exclusivity of table games, paying the state $1bn in revenues over five years. Poker parlours, lotteries, horse and dog racing tracks operating in Florida are all fighting to protect their established businesses.

Although Genting dropped its casino plan to develop a non-gaming project on half of its Miami site while the debate is waged, the gaming industry is not so quick to give up. There is also big money from pro-casino forces in the state, including a continued effort from Genting and Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas Sands CEO who made the largest political contribution of all time in last year’s Presidential election. Companies are working with lawmakers to discuss options.
“What we would encourage the Committee to look at, and the Legislature as a whole, is providing a tax rate that provides incentive to go big,” advised Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands, to the House Select Committee earlier this year, “to build an iconic structure that not just caters to locals or to regionals around Florida, but will convince people to travel to Florida from out of state and out of country in order to visit and spend their money in the economy here.”

The Florida gaming wars continue and gaming interests will always exist in a potentially lucrative market. Disney continues to battle the sector and money lost in huge licensing deals is just further investment to disassociate itself and Florida with the industry. Fearing a new source of potentially mighty competition, Disney continues to line the pockets of lobbyists whilst the gaming industry presents state officials and voters with a range of benefits.

“In the battles between pro-gaming and anti-gaming political campaigns, the playing field is not level in one important sense: Those who oppose gaming’s expansion often succeed,” reads a statement in a recent state-sponsored Gambling Impact Study. “But in many instances, they have to continue doing battle in subsequent years. They have to win every time. Those who favour the expansion of gaming need to win only once.”