Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responds to a question during a press conference at the headquarters of the former Reedy Creek Improvement District that a newly appointed board now calls the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, Monday, April 17, 2023.
Joe Burbank | Orlando Sentinel | Getty Images
The board of supervisors picked by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to oversee Walt Disney World’s operations voted Monday to sue Disney in response to the company’s recent federal lawsuit alleging a campaign of political retaliation by the governor.
The panel, which challenged the company’s long-standing self-governing status when it replaced a Disney-backed board weeks earlier, unanimously voted to authorize a lawsuit in state court.
“This district will seek justice in state court here in central Florida where both it and Disney reside and do business,” board chair Martin Garcia said at a Monday morning meeting, where the legal fight was the sole topic of business. “Yes, we’ll see justice in our own backyard.”
Disney sued DeSantis last Wednesday and the oversight panel in U.S. district court in Tallahassee, Florida. The company asked to effectively restore its control over the special tax district that has allowed it to self-govern its Orlando-area parks’ operations since the 1960s.
The litigation escalated a fight that began more than a year earlier, when the entertainment giant criticized a Florida bill limiting talk of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms.
The bill, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by its opponents, was passed by the state’s GOP-held legislature and signed by DeSantis in March 2022. Within weeks, the governor and his allies started targeting Disney’s special governance district, which at the time was called the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
Disney filed its lawsuit on the same day that the governor’s board members voted to undo a development deal that the company struck right before the DeSantis choices took over — essentially throttling the new board’s power.
“In essence, Disney is asking a federal court in Tallahassee to wrestle back the hands of time to 1967,” Garcia said of Disney’s lawsuit during Monday’s meeting.
“For us to be stuck in an urban-planning design of 1967 — does that make sense to anybody?” Garcia said, arguing that his board is just trying to modernize the district.
A Disney spokesman declined to comment on the board’s vote.
But Disney’s civil complaint alleged that the state’s actions amount to “as clear a case of retaliation as this Court is ever likely to see.” The company noted the state’s issues with the district only began after the fight over the classroom bill.
“There is no room for disagreement about what happened here: Disney expressed its opinion on state legislation and was then punished by the State for doing so,” Disney’s lawsuit said.
Disney filed the complaint while DeSantis was overseas on a political trip that appeared to be laying more groundwork for a possible run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
DeSantis, who is expected to announce his presidential plans after the Florida state legislature ends in early May, is considered a top contender against former President Donald Trump.
But the extended row against Disney, one of Florida’s top employers, has recently begun to generate criticism from some of DeSantis’ fellow Republicans.
(With inputs from CNBC)