Walt Disney World Resort - Featured Image

Disney Sues Florida Governor DeSantis in Federal Court

The Walt Disney Company has sued Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in the latest escalation of the dispute between Disney and DeSantis. The lawsuit was filed in a federal court and accuses DeSantis of waging a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power” against the company.

This lawsuit also alleges that DeSantis has a campaign to punish Disney over its political views, which DeSantis often refers to as “woke.’ Disney accuses DeSantis of illegally voiding a Development Agreement that transferred some powers from the district to Disney. Disney is asking for the Federal Court to declare that legislation dissolving the Development Agreement is both unlawful and also unenforceable. This includes the fact that it was  “enacted in retaliation for Disney’s political speech in violation of the First Amendment. This campaign was “orchestrated at every step’” by DeSantis Disney says and it now threatens the company’s business.

The lawsuit comes on the same day that a new board for the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District voted to nullify a development deal that was made by Disney and the former Reedy Creek Improvement District. This came before Governor DeSantis dissolved that districted and replaced it with the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight District that has hand picked board members by the governor.

The lawsuit Disney filed called the board’s actions “patently retaliatory, patently anti-business and patently unconstitutional.”

The lawsuit against the governor says, “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.

“Today’s action is the latest strike: At the Governor’s bidding, the State’s oversight board has purported to ‘void’ publicly noticed and duly agreed development contracts, which had laid the foundation for billions of Disney’s investment dollars and thousands of jobs. This government action was patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional. But the Governor and his allies have made clear they do not care and will not stop. The Governor recently declared that his team would not only ‘void the development agreement’—just as they did today—but also planned ‘to look at things like taxes on the hotels,’ ‘tolls on the roads,’ ‘developing some of the property that the district owns’ with ‘more amusement parks,’ and even putting a ‘state prison’ next to Walt Disney World. ‘Who knows? I just think the possibilities are endless,’ he said.”

The lawsuit was filed by Daniel M. Petrocelli from Los Angeles on behalf of Disney in United States District Court in Tallahassee. Petrocelli represented Donald Trump previously when he was dealing with a class-action fraud case against the now non-existent Trump University.

The latest escalation of this battle between Disney and DeSantis began last year when then Disney-CEO Bob Chapek came out against Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, that is now a law. This led to a disagreement between the company and state that eventually led to a focus on the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the entity where the Walt Disney World Resort resides. The Reedy Creek Improvement District was created over half a century ago to govern the district and help manage development.

As the disagreement has developed, DeSantis has grown increasingly aggressive and taken actions to punish Disney. This has included suggesting that the board of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District could have sway over Disney content, bringing up raising taxes in the district, making toll roads in the district, regulating the district’s Monorails, and even throwing out the idea of adding a prison in the district. DeSantis has also suggested that Disney is playing by its own set of rules and does not pay enough taxes because it assesses its own properties. Address the Development Agreement, DeSantis has said that Disney and Reedy Creek made the agreement in secret. “They (Disney) are not superior to the laws that are enacted by the state of Florida.” DeSantis said. “They thought they could create a development agreement that would render everything we did null and void. That’s not going to work, that’s not going to fly.”

Disney, however, is the largest tax payer in Central Florida and does not assess its own taxes. Disney utilizes the same system for tax assessment as other companies with similar situations in Florida. It appears that this system is equal and Disney is being singled out at this point. In 2022 Disney paid $1.146 billion in state and local taxes.

The development deal that has been central to recent controversies was made in an open manner and not behind closed doors. There was plenty of transparency that has been available for those who have been watching this story develop since the conflict first began. The Development Agreement could be seen in process on the Reedy Creek Improvement District website in its minutes. The process was also publicized in local papers and on the Reedy Creek Improvement District website.

The State of Florida itself approved the Comprehensive Plan upon which the Development Agreement which DeSantis is trying to render “null and void” is based on. This was done on July 17, 2022. It was finalized on February 8, 2023 with Reedy Creek Improvement District. 

After the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight Board and Governor DeSantis discovered this Development Agreement and began to attack it, Disney released the following statement on March 28, 2023: “All agreements signed between Disney and the District were appropriate, and were discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums in compliance with Florida’s Government in the Sunshine law.”   

Along with the board for the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District nullifying the Development Agreement, a Florida Senate panel recently put forward an amendment to provide more oversight of Walt Disney World Resort’s monorails.

Daps Magic will continue to follow this story and provide updates as they become available. What do you think about this lawsuit? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.