Walt Disney Parks and Resorts is accusing Gov. Ron DeSantis of targeting the company for speaking out, and the company is firing back in a lawsuit against DeSantis and his appointees on Disney World’s governing board.
Wednesday’s lawsuit comes on the same day the Disney World board voted to overturn a development agreement made between Disney and the outgoing board before the state took over.
“A targeted campaign of government retaliation — orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech — now threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights. … In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind,” Disney attorneys said in a 77-page federal lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court’s Northern Florida District.
“Today’s action is the latest strike.”
The more than yearlong saga between state Republicans and Disney began when the company objected to the state’s Parental Rights in Education measure, which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
“Disney regrets that it has come to this. But having exhausted efforts to seek a resolution, the Company is left with no choice but to file this lawsuit to protect its cast members, guests, and local development partners from a relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain State officials,” Disney said in the lawsuit.
DeSantis Communications Director Taryn Fenske responded in a statement. “We are unaware of any legal right that a company has to operate its own government or maintain special privileges not held by other businesses in the state. This lawsuit is yet another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of the Florida voters and operate outside the bounds of the law.”
The Republican-controlled Legislature passed a new law this year that allowed DeSantis to remove Disney World’s governing board and replace them with his own appointees. Later, the new state-run board accused Disney of surprising them with agreements that stripped them of control of future land-use decisions, leading into Wednesday’s board meeting.
The new tourism oversight board called the Disney agreements “entirely one-sided,” giving Disney control of the height of buildings built in the district and the power to design future infrastructure projects as it grows, according to a legislative findings report approved at Wednesday’s meeting. The special district “gets nothing in return.”
“Disney picked the fight with this board,” said Martin Garcia, who chairs the Central Florida Tourism Oversight Board, at Wednesday’s meeting. “Bottom line: What our lawyers have told us is, factually and legally, what they created is an absolute legal mess.”
The new board said the agreements are invalid because Disney did not properly mail other property owners in the special district a notice of the resolution to approve the development agreements, nor did the district get input from cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista.
The new board also voted Wednesday on a resolution to assert its “superior authority” over the district for comprehensive planning, zoning regulations and environmental protection rules.
Meanwhile, Disney argued in the lawsuit that “the development contracts laid the foundation for billions of Disney’s investment dollars and thousands of jobs.”
Disney disputed the new board’s version of events that the development agreements were a surprise, and pointed out journalists from multiple Central Florida outlets attended the Jan. 25 and Feb. 8 meetings when the issue was on the agenda.
Between the two meetings, the time it took to discuss the agreements was seven minutes, according to the new board’s legislative findings.
“The Governor and his allies have made clear they do not care and will not stop,” the lawsuit said, bringing up the Governor’s threats to add toll roads, hotel taxes or even his quip about building a state prison on the special district’s land.
In the lawsuit, Disney asks for unspecified damages, attorney’s fees as well as the courts to overturn SB 4C which dissolved the Reedy Creek Improvement District and HB 9B that gave DeSantis the power to appoint Disney World’s board members. Previously, Disney handpicked its own members.
Many weighed in on the ongoing, very public battle between DeSantis and Disney.
At Wednesday’s meeting, several Disney Springs restaurant and retail owners whose businesses survived the pandemic and have dealt with labor shortages and rising costs spoke out over concerns about being caught up in the fight. The new board has threatened to raise taxes at the special district as it braces for a costly legal battle against Disney.
Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando who is an outspoken critic of DeSantis, also released a statement.
“It really does take a terrible Governor for someone like me to express support for a corporation but it’s been such a circus to watch DeSantis continue to target and demonize the Walt Disney World Company because they expressed an opinion he did not like and stopped giving him campaign contributions,” Eskamani said.
“This has clearly been a pattern of punitive and petty behavior by Gov. DeSantis that has exposed his inability to lead alongside his extreme policy positions. I wish Disney luck in their litigation and ask that the Governor let it go.”