- Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to put a prison next to Disney as his feud with the resort continues.
- But it’s unclear how much, if at all, a prison would actually impact Disney.
- A prison could also bring jobs to small towns that don’t have a local employer as large as Disney.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s threat to put a state prison next to the “Happiest Place on Earth” may not be as menacing as he thinks.
DeSantis has been sparring with Disney for more than a year after the company spoke out against a controversial bill that restricted discussions of gender and sexual identity in schools. The Republican and his state’s largest tourist attraction have since engaged in a power struggle over Disney World’s self-governing status.
During a press conference last week, DeSantis announced more retaliation efforts, even threatening to build a state prison on the 40 square miles of land that borders Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Insider’s Kimberly Leonard reported.
But it’s unclear how much a state prison close to Disney would actually impact the resort and theme park. On the other hand, other communities in the Sunshine State could very likely benefit from having a prison built nearby.
“The governor sort of flaunts the idea as a threat, but if they’re going to really build a prison it’s a big question of whether Florida wants more prisons, and whether, if they want more prisons, should they put it in this area,” Janjala Chirakijja, an economics and business professor at Monash University in Australia, told Insider.
Chirakijja, who has studied the impact prisons have on local economies in the US, said it’s incredibly rare for a prison to be opened next to a major tourism destination or large corporation — since prisons are more commonly placed in areas with few job opportunities or that rely on dying industries — adding she could only speculate on how Disney would be impacted.
Chirakijja said that in general research shows prisons are “quite separate from the local economy,” meaning they don’t necessarily have a major impact on adjacent businesses and local industries. For instance, she found that when a prison is built, only the property values of homes that are closest to the prison are impacted negatively. If you look on the county level, however, there does not appear to be a significant impact in home values.
That suggests there’s enough of a stigma around prisons for homeowners to not want one in their backyard, but perhaps not enough to seriously impact the wider community.
Looking at crime rates, Chirakijja said there is “no evidence to suggest crime has significantly increased or decreased” in communities where prisons are built.
As for how a prison could impact Disney World, she speculated that the primary factor would be how it impacts the company’s brand and tourists’ perception of safety.
But with Disney World drawing an astonishing 58 million visitors per year, more than any other vacation resort, it’s unclear if there would be enough of a stigma associated with a prison to significantly impact its world-renowned reputation. Chirakijja said it may also depend on other factors, including what kind of prison is built, such as minimum or maximum security.
Smaller communities could benefit from the jobs a prison would bring
But there is one straightforward factor in which prisons can have a direct and tangible impact on a local economy: jobs.
“In smaller communities, it could bring an important, sizable number of jobs,” Chirakijja said, adding evidence shows prisons can increase local employment rates and wages.
She noted that apart from the direct jobs that open up at the prison itself, there’s little evidence of additional jobs popping up in the community. Prisons on average employ about 300 people, while larger prisons can employ over 1,000.
Those new jobs wouldn’t be significant near Disney World — which alone employs 77,000 people, making it the largest single-site employer in the US. Disney is also located in Orlando, which has a population of more than 300,000 people. But in some smaller, more rural communities those jobs could have a major impact.
In fact, Florida’s Department of Corrections has closed a slew of prisons and other correctional facilities in recent years due to staffing shortages, causing concern in rural counties that depend on the jobs at such facilities.
“All of those rural counties… some of them, that’s their only economy. So when you begin to close them, you’re hurting them,” Florida State Rep. Dianne Hart said in 2021, when many of the closures took place, according to local outlet ABC Action News.
Unlike near Disney, where it’s unclear what impact, if any, a prison would have, such a facility could provide a major boost to small Florida towns that have lost jobs as prisons closed.
“With prisons, sometimes it can be a threat,” Chirakijja said, “but in the past a lot of communities actually competed to get prisons.”
Have a news tip? Contact this reporter at [email protected].