CNN  — 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis escalated his weeks-long feud with Disney on Tuesday, challenging lawmakers to eliminate the unique status that allows the entertainment company to operate as an independent government around its Orlando-area theme parks.

Within hours, Republican lawmakers delivered, quickly advancing a pair of bills targeting Disney over its objections to a new law limiting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Once upon a time Disney was a great partner with the state of Florida,” said Rep. Jackie Toledo, a Tampa Republican. “We’ve granted them privileges because of our shared history, shared goals and shared successes. Shamefully, Disney betrayed us.”

It now appears almost certain that by the end of the week, the long-standing symbiotic arrangement that helped grow Disney into an iconic entertainment brand and Florida into an international travel destination could be dissolved.

Democrats accused Republicans of retaliating against Florida’s largest private employer in ways that will reverberate throughout the state’s important tourism economy.

“Punishing a company for daring to speak against a governor’s radical right political agenda is precisely the kinds of things that we see in countries like Russia and China,” said state Rep. Dotie Joseph, a Democrat from the Miami area.

Disney did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Bill would unravel decades-old law

The blow to Disney is coming in the form of a bill to unravel the 55-year-old Reedy Creek Improvement Act, a unique Florida law that helped establish Walt Disney World in the state by giving the brains behind Mickey Mouse operational autonomy.

GOP-controlled committees in the state House and Senate voted in favor of a bill that would end the special district on June 1, 2023.

Another bill, to subject Disney to a state law that allows people to sue Big Tech companies for censorship, also passed out of initial committees Tuesday afternoon. Disney had won an exemption from the bill last year. A federal judge has blocked the law but Florida is appealing the ruling.

The votes came hours after DeSantis, in a surprise bombshell announcement, called on lawmakers to sunset the Reedy Creek Improvement Act. Lawmakers had already been scheduled to meet in Tallahassee this week to pass new congressional maps.

Republicans in Florida and Disney have been at odds for months over legislation that prohibits schools from teaching young children about sexual orientation or gender identity. After initially declining to weigh in, Disney CEO Bob Chapek publicly criticized Florida lawmakers for passing what opponents called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and apologized to the company’s LGBTQ employees for not being a stronger advocate.

Chapek announced that the company would stop making political donations in Florida after decades of contributing generously, mostly to Republicans, including a $50,000 donation to DeSantis’ reelection effort.

DeSantis ripped Disney as a “woke corporation” and criticized its business in China. After DeSantis signed the bill, Disney wrote in a statement that its “goal” was to get the law repealed or see it defeated in the courts.

Despite the rising tensions, few expected Florida Republicans would take the unimaginable step of undercutting the business of its most iconic company. The Reedy Creek Improvement District covers Disney’s properties near Orlando, allowing the company to manage land within its boundaries and provide its own public services, such as firefighting and police. There are also significant tax advantages for Disney in the arrangement.

But DeSantis, widely seen as a 2024 presidential contender, has vowed to challenge any business that steps into the political arena to support progressive causes. He has been joined in the fight by Fox’s prime-time hosts, who have taken turns criticizing Disney and enlisting people to turn their backs on Mickey Mouse.

Last month, DeSantis signaled support for stripping Disney of its sacred status.

“Disney has alienated a lot of people now,” DeSantis said. “And so, the political influence they’re used to wielding, I think has dissipated. And so the question is, why would you want to have special privileges in the law at all? And I don’t think that we should.”

Given the choice between DeSantis, their party’s most popular elected leader, and Disney, the state’s most iconic company, it was clear Tuesday that Republican lawmakers have sided with DeSantis.

“You kick the hornet’s nest, things come up,” state Rep. Randy Fine, the Republican sponsor of the bill, said before the measure passed the House State Affairs Committee by 14-7. “This bill does target one company. It targets Walt Disney Company. You want to know why? Because they’re the only company in the state that has ever been granted the right to govern themselves.”

Next steps unclear

It’s not clear what dominoes will fall next if lawmakers proceed. Fine said he has not spoken with Disney or the surrounding cities and counties that would likely have to take up the government functions that the company has operated for decades. He said Disney and other stakeholders have a year to come up with a plan. He didn’t rule out altering and extending the Reedy Creek Improvement District when lawmakers meet in 2023.

Disney’s unique arrangement in Florida has not been without its detractors over the years. Some have complained that the company does not pay its fair share of taxes. Others have said it’s received an unfair advantage over the competition.

But Democrats said Republicans were rushing into a plan out of retaliation, not sound policy. They said the bill as written contradicts an existing state law that says a majority of residents must vote to eliminate a special district – which is mostly Disney employees in Reedy Creek.

“Reedy Creek has a budget of over $350 million; they have debt of almost a billion dollars,” said state Sen. Randolph Bracy. “Orange County, central Florida residents would have to absorb all that debt, and it is something that we cannot handle. So I think it’s appropriate to say that this legislation is unnecessary but also it is clearly retribution.”

CNN’s Dianne Gallagher, Jaide Timm-Garcia and Shawn Nottingham contributed to this report.