TALLAHASSEE, Florida (AP) — Disney sued Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday over the Republican’s takeover of its theme park district, alleging the governor waged a “targeted campaign of government retaliation” after the company opposed a law critics call “Don’t Say Gay.”
The lawsuit was filed in Tallahassee minutes after a Disney World oversight board appointed by DeSantis voted to void a deal that gave the company authority over design and construction decisions in its sprawling properties near Orlando.
“Disney regrets that it has come to this,” the case said. “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.”
The legal filing is the latest salvo in a more than year-old feud between Disney and DeSantis that has engulfed the governor in criticism as he prepares to launch an expected presidential bid in the coming months.
DeSantis, who has framed himself as a Republican firebrand able to deftly implement his conservative agenda without drama, has dived headlong into the fray with the beloved company and major tourism driver, as business leaders and White House rivals bash his stance as a rejection of the small-government tenets of conservatism.
“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 DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske. “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 fight began last year after Disney, in the face of significant pressure, publicly opposed a state law that bans classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades, a policy critics call “Don’t Say Gay.”
As punishment, DeSantis took over Disney World’s self-governing district and appointed a new board of supervisors that would oversee municipal services in the sprawling theme parks. But before the new board came in, the company pushed though an 11th-hour agreement that stripped the new supervisors of much of their authority.
The DeSantis board on Wednesday said Disney’s move to retain control over their property was effectively unlawful and performed without proper public notice.
“Disney picked the fight with this board. We were not looking out for a fight,” said Martin Garcia, chair of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, before the vote, adding “bottom line, what our lawyers have told us, is factually and legally what they created is an absolute legal mess. It will not work.”
DeSantis has also vowed additional retribution, with proposals to enhance state oversight of the resort’s rides and monorail, as well as a suggestion to build a prison nearby. Also Wednesday, the Florida Senate passed a bill seeking to put those retributions in place and to undo agreements made by the Reedy Creek board before the state took it over. The House still needs to approve before it can move forward.
Disney has said all agreements made with the previous board were legal and approved in a public forum. Disney CEO Bob Iger has also said that any actions against the company that threaten jobs or expansion at its Florida resort was not only “anti-business” but “anti-Florida.”
The Disney lawsuit asks a federal judge to void the governor’s takeover of the theme park district, as well as the DeSantis oversight board’s actions, on the grounds that they were violations of company’s free speech rights.
“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,” the lawsuit said.