Mickey’s gloves are coming off as The Walt Disney Company (TWDC) has filed a lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and state officials in federal court, accusing them of engaging in a “targeted campaign of government retaliation” in the feud over the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
TWDC filed the lawsuit on Wednesday, April 26, 2023, as DeSantis’ hand-picked tourism oversight board declared Disney’s agreements seeking to retain control over development in Central Florida were null and void.
The tourism oversight board’s lawyers say the previous Disney-friendly Reedy Creek Improvement District board failed to follow procedural requirements and properly notify affected property owners of the development agreements.
But in the federal lawsuit, Disney’s lawyers say the agreements were lawfully approved, and DeSantis and his allies are “employing the machinery of the state in a coordinated campaign to damage Disney’s ability to do business in Florida” because it opposed what critics called the “don’t say gay” law.
“A targeted campaign of government retaliation — orchestrated at every step by Gov. 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,” reads the lawsuit filed by TWDC.
“Disney regrets that it has come to this,” TWDC said in its filing. “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 also says it’s fortunate to have resources to battle State’s retaliation, “a stand smaller businesses and individuals might not be able to take when the State comes after them for expressing their own views. In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.”
DeSantis’ office responded to the lawsuit in a statement this afternoon:
“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,” said Taryn Fenske, a DeSantis spokeswoman. “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 timeline of this feud does lend creedence to Disney’s legal claims, though.
DeSantis had no issues with the Reedy Creek District until Disney spoke out about legislation that limits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools in March 2022.
In fact, DeSantis’ political committee received contributions from Disney totaling $100,000 according to the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper – $50,000 in 2019 and $50,000 in 2021 – which the Governor had no problems accepting.
But once Disney spoke up about the legislation in a move to protect its LGBTQIA+ cast members and their families, DeSantis responded by calling Disney a “woke” corporation and vowing to end what he considered to be “special privileges” the corporation enjoyed in Florida.
The state then passed a law to rename the district the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, with a board handpicked by the governor.
However, the new board soon learned that Disney and Reedy Creek entered into an agreement in the weeks before the old board dissolved that stripped the new board of much of its power over Disney property and gave it to the company for decades.
Since then, DeSantis, the new board and Florida legislators have escalated attacks to tighten control over the district, including attempts to invalidate that agreement and the subjection of Disney rides and the monorail to inspection by the state, while other theme parks like Universal Orlando would be exempt.
In a recent press conference, DeSantis and his board also hinted at building their own developments on Disney property, raising tolls and taxes on Disney property, and at one point even joked about building a state prison on adjacent land.
In the suit, Disney’s lawyers take issue with the tourism board’s characterization of the agreements, which they say are vital for a development plan that will put $17 billion and 13,000 new jobs into Central Florida’s economy over the next decade.
And now it looks like it will be up to a judge to decide where this lawsuit goes from here. If you want to read the full document TWDC filed, you can find it here.
Within hours of TWDC filing this lawsuit, the Florida Senate voted 27-13 for SB 1604 that includes a newly-added provision aimed at Disney to invalidate their last agreement with Reedy Creek.
The lone Republican to vote no was Senator Joe Gruters, who said, “We should be finding ways to support our job creators and turbocharge Florida’s economy. People’s pocketbooks are more powerful at influencing corporate behavior than the heavy hand of government. I’m sure Floridians will make their voices heard on this issue.”