Disney fires back on guns at work
Scott Powers and Jason Garcia | Sentinel Staff Writers
8:42 PM EDT, July 2, 2008
Walt Disney World employees won't be packing any heat in the company parking lots anytime soon.
The giant resort has declared that much of its sprawling property is exempt from a new state law that allows Floridians with concealed-weapons permits to keep firearms locked in their cars at work.
Disney, which has 60,000 employees and a long-standing policy against allowing guns on its land, cites an arcane -- and late-added -- loophole in the new law, which took effect Tuesday.
The company's position stunned backers of the new law, who said Wednesday that they never intended to exempt Florida's largest single-site employer. "You've got to be kidding me," said state Sen. Durell Peaden, a Panhandle Republican and one of the authors of the bill.
For three years, much of the big-business community in Florida -- including Disney, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Retail Federation -- had vigorously opposed legislation intended to ensure that employees could store guns in their vehicles while at work. That opposition was offset by strong support from the National Rifle Association, however, and such a bill finally was approved this spring by the state Legislature.
But Disney now contends that it is largely unaffected by the measure.
In a memo circulated last week and obtained by the Orlando Sentinel, Disney World Vice President of Public Affairs Shannon McAleavey advised other company executives that, with a few exceptions, "this law does not apply to Walt Disney World Co. owned and leased properties." Consequently, Disney "continues to maintain a zero tolerance policy" for guns. If an employee brings one onto Disney World property without authorization, it could be grounds for termination, the memo states.
In an interview Wednesday, McAleavey said it is a matter of "protecting the safety of our cast and our guests."
Move outrages NRA
The NRA reacted quickly.
The organization issued an alert Wednesday to members under the heading, "Disney Thumbing Nose at the New Florida Gun Law," accusing Disney of being a "prime offender when it comes to firing employees for exercising Second Amendment rights."
Disney cites language
within Florida's newly enacted "Preservation and Protection of the Right to Keep and Bear Arms in Motor Vehicles Act of 2008" that creates an exception for companies whose primary business is to manufacture, use, store or transport explosives regulated under federal law.
"I intended it to exempt places like defense plants, Air Force bases, things like that," said Peaden, who sponsored the bill in the Senate. "But not Disney. Not at all."
But on the same day that the House took its final vote on the gun bill, the exemption for explosives companies was revised so that it also includes "property owned or leased by an employer who has obtained a permit" under federal law for such explosives
Disney has such a permit
, for the extensive fireworks used in its theme parks.
State Rep. Stan Mayfield, a Vero Beach Republican also involved in crafting the final legislation, said lawmakers had agreed to insert that exception at the request of a small group of lawyers representing several businesses and business groups -- including Disney
But Mayfield said nobody ever intended for the language to spare so much of the Disney resort
, which covers about 30,000 acres.
"I don't think anybody that voted for that bill expected Disney to be exempt," Mayfield said.
Disney officials said they have carefully reviewed the language and determined that the law excludes most Disney World property. McAleavey's memo concluded that it exempts "all theme parks, resorts, theme-park and resort parking lots, Cast Member parking lots, administrative offices across the Walt Disney World Resort, Downtown Disney, Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, hotels on Hotel Plaza Boulevard, Celebration and the Disney Reservation Centers" in Orlando and Tampa.
The language does not exempt Disney Vacation Club's Vero Beach Resort, Disney Cruise Line's crew-member parking lots and a couple of other Disney properties in Florida, according to the memo.
Law challenged in court
But McAleavey also noted that the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Retail Federation are challenging the law in court, and Disney would continue to support that effort. A Tampa judge could rule this month, "and we are hopeful it will be overturned," she wrote.
Other theme parks also might hold appropriate explosives permits because of their fireworks programs
But Universal Orlando is claiming a different exemption: The resort houses a work-study program, the Universal Education Center, that is staffed by Orange County Public Schools
"We are required to follow school-district policies," spokesman Tom Schroder said. "The Orange County Public School System is exempt from this law. We have so informed our team members."
SeaWorld Orlando takes an entirely different approach: That company supports the rights of its employees or visitors to transport legal firearms in their cars, "and we have for some time," spokeswoman Becca Bides said.
Scott Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or 407-420-5441. Jason Garcia can be reached at email@example.com