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Walt Disney World is trying again this year to toughen the state’s ticket-fraud laws, this time with the help of the lawmaker who killed the proposal last year as well as an influential Orlando Republican who will become Senate president next year.
State Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican from Brandon who initially objected to the bill, said his change of heart had nothing to do with a $10,000 donation from Disney to his political-action committee. Instead, he said he’s now confident that Disney lobbyists will work with him to address his concerns about the legislation.
Lee also said Orlando Republican Sen. Andy Gardiner, who will take over as Senate president after the November elections, asked him to shepherd the bill.
“My relationship with Sen. Gardiner is much more important to me than my relationship with any particular corporation,” Lee said.
The Disney-backed bill would impose longer prison terms for people who commit ticket fraud. It also would expand ticket-fraud laws to ensure that they cover Disney World’s new MagicBands, the microchipped rubber bracelets that function as all-in-one park tickets, hotel-room keys and credit cards.
Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger said the changes are needed because “fraudulent ticket sales can ruin family vacations and harm Florida’s tourism brand.” Universal Orlando said it also supports the legislation. SeaWorld Orlando would not comment, though it backed the bill a year ago.
Finger could not quantify how much ticket fraud costs Disney or tourists. But the Orange County Sheriff’s Office has said the fraud has become a such a lucrative field, with such light penalties, that the agency once uncovered a convicted drug dealer who had switched to selling phony park passes.
Lee said he initially opposed the bill because he was concerned about a provision that would make criminals of those who buy fraudulent theme-park tickets, in addition to those who sell them.
“I didn’t want to make some poor, innocent family from Germany into criminals,” he said.
Disney and Lee haven’t always been fond of each other. During the 2012 elections, Disney gave tens of thousands of dollars to an obscure political committee that used the money to help Lee’s opponent in what became a heated campaign for a Tampa-area Senate seat.
Lee won anyway. But the following spring, he used his position as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to block Disney’s ticket legislation.
“There definitely were some hard feelings,” Lee acknowledged. Still, he said, he opposed the bill on its merits.
In December, the company wrote a $10,000 check to a political committee called The Conservative, which Lee is using to raise money. Finger said the contribution was consistent with Disney’s political philosophy.
“We support candidates and political committees,” she said, “that understand the tourism industry and support economic growth in Florida.”
The new version of the bill, which Lee filed last month, would still impose penalties on buyers of fraudulent theme-park tickets. Lee said he plans to work with Disney lobbyists to address that issue.
Gardiner said he asked Lee to sponsor the bill because state law needs to accommodate changes in theme-park-pass technology. Like Lee, Gardiner said language in the bill targeting ticket buyers is “probably the one area that has to be addressed.”
So far this election cycle, the resort has donated more than $1.7 million to state candidates and committees, including about $800,000 to the Republican Party, which controls the Legislature and the Governor’s Office. Gardiner said Disney’s political contributions had “absolutely no impact whatsoever” on his support for the legislation.
In an email, Finger said that people who bought fraudulent tickets would be charged with a crime only if they acted with criminal intent. A spokeswoman for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, a lobbying group of which Disney is a member, added that the bill’s goal is to “prevent criminal racketeering,” not to punish unsuspecting tourists.
The bill (SB 1142) would extend fraud laws covering multiuse theme-park tickets — such as multiday and “park-hopping” passes — to also include “cards, wristbands and media” that function as tickets. That would ensure the protections apply to Disney’s MagicBands.
And the bill would significantly increase the punishment for people who commit fraud with such tickets. Anyone convicted of illegally selling a multiday theme-park ticket could be sentenced to up to one year in prison. Current law allows for 60 days.
A second violation would become a felony — instead of a misdemeanor — and carry a maximum sentence of five years.