Disney vs. DeSantis: Round 3

The Disney vs. DeSantis saga continues to what seems to be another dramatic season adding to the mini-series. As a recap, DeSantis waged war with Disney after they vowed to fight to repeal the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. DeSantis stripped Disney of its governing powers over its special improvement district, Reedy Creek. Before stripping Disney of its powers, Reedy Creek transferred its power back to Disney for the life of the last living descendant of King Charles III, plus 21 years.  

DeSantis was enraged after realizing that Reedy Creek, publicly and legally according to Disney, transferred power back to Disney before his takeover. He called for a state investigation into the transfer agreement. The newly appointed board over Reedy Creek or as it is now known as, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, has hired four law firms in hopes to nullify the transfer of powers agreement. In response to the agreement, DeSantis has now threatened to build a competing state theme park or a prison near Disney, threatened to tax Disney hotels and place toll roads around the area, and threatened to create more inspection regulations.[1]

At Hillsdale College, in Michigan, DeSantis was promoting his new autobiography when asked to respond to complaints that he was using his political power to mess with Disney, he responded by saying, “They can keep trying to do things, but ultimately we’re going to win on every single issue involving Disney, I can tell you that.”[2]

This past April, Disney filed a lawsuit against DeSantis and the new board claiming that they have violated their First Amendment right and have “a targeted campaign of government retaliation.” “In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind,” Disney said in its complaint. The lawsuit accused DeSantis of a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint,” this campaign, “now threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region and violates its constitutional rights.” Disney notes in the complaint that they regret it has come to this, “The company sought to de-escalate the matter for nearly a year, trying several times to spark a productive dialogue with the DeSantis administration. But having exhausted efforts to seek a resolution, the company is left with no choice.”

Disney filed this complaint after the new board nullified the agreements that gave power back to Disney. The board’s general counsel said the agreements were void since Disney failed to notify the public of the new agreements. Disney has repeatedly maintained that the agreements were made legally and public notice was given in The Orlando Sentinel.

Bob Iger, Disney’s CEO, has called Mr. DeSantis “anti-business” and “anti-Florida” for his actions. Mr. Iger has mentioned to shareholders that future investment in Disney World could be at risk if the governor continued to use Disney as a political punching bag. Mr. Iger, at Disney’s annual shareholder meeting this month, stated, “A company has a right to freedom of speech just like individuals do,” “The governor got very angry over the position Disney took and seems like he’s decided to retaliate against us, including the naming of a new board to oversee the property, in effect to seek to punish a company for its exercise of a constitutional right. And that just seems really wrong to me.” [3]

On May 2nd, DeSantis signed a bill requiring the state to inspect Disney’s monorail system. Disney, Universal Studios, and Sea World all currently conduct their own safety inspections. Under the new bill, Disney will be the only theme park that is required to have state inspections. Senator Linda Stewart tried to block the proposed inspections of Disney’s monorail, calling the plan “retaliatory.” Republican Senators Erin Grall, and Joe Gruters crossed party lines and joined Democrats in voting against the bill.[4] DeSantis also signed a bill into law giving special district oversight boards the ability to void previously approved development agreements that were executed within three months of any separate law that modified how board members were selected. This law seems to directly target the actions of the Reedy Creek district when it transferred powers back to Disney.[5]

Following the signing of these bills and the actions of the board, Disney amended the lawsuit filed in April. The amended lawsuit claims more retaliation attacks from the governor. These claims include the passing of the ride inspection bill that only affects Disney, and the law attempting to void Disney’s development deals that were struck before the new board took over. Disney has asked the federal judge to void the governor’s takeover of the district, and to void the actions from the new board, where they voted to take back power and declared the Reedy Creek agreements void.[6]

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board has counter-sued Disney to uphold and enforce the board’s vote to void Reedy Creek’s agreements. [7]

Republican and Democratic senators have criticized DeSantis’s actions, taking time away from important state matters that need attention. “Every day it seems like there’s another way that they want to try to make things more difficult for Disney, but all they’re doing is costing taxpayers money to hire lawyers to go defend what they are doing,” said Senator Linda Stewart. [8]

Bob Iger mentioned on Disney’s May 10 earnings call, that they were “closely evaluating where it makes sense to direct future investments” in Disney’s theme park business. In directly responding to DeSantis’ threats, Iger stated, “Does the state want us to invest more, employ more people and pay more taxes or not?” Days following the call, Disney announced they were no longer moving forward with the building of a $1 billion office complex that would create space for Disney to relocate and employ more cast members in Florida. Only time will tell what the next chapter of this saga will hold.

[1] Lee, Llyod, & Panella, Chris, “Disney and DeSantis have been in a yearlong feud that began after the company spoke out against a controversial bill. Here’s a timeline of the events.” 21 Apr. 2023, https://www.businessinsider.com/disney-desantis-feud-timeline-parental-rights-education-florida-2023-4

[2] Frankel, Todd & Rozsa, Lori, DeSantis might have met his match in Disney’s Iger as both sides dig in,” 15 May, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2023/05/15/desantis-disney-iger-power/

[3]Barnes, Brooks, “Disney Sues DeSantis Over Control of Its Florida Resort,” 26 Apr. 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/26/business/disney-desantis-board-florida.html

[4] “Inspections on track for Walt Disney World’s monorail system,” 2 May 2023, https://www.cbsnews.com/miami/news/inspections-on-track-for-walt-disney-worlds-monorail-system/

[5] Gregg, Aaron, “A timeline of the DeSantis-Disney feud,” 8 May 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2023/04/30/disney-desantis-feud-timeline/

[6] Breuninger, Kevin, Whitten, Sarah, “Disney expands lawsuit against DeSantis after governor signs bill to void land deals,” 8 May, 2023, https://www.cnbc.com/2023/05/08/disney-lawsuit-against-desantis-expanded.html

[7] Contorno, Steve, “DeSantis-aligned board votes to sue Disney,” 1 May 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/05/01/politics/reedy-creek-board-sues-disney/index.html

[8] Breuninger, Kevin, Whitten, Sarah, “Disney expands lawsuit against DeSantis after governor signs bill to void land deals,” 8 May, 2023, https://www.cnbc.com/2023/05/08/disney-lawsuit-against-desantis-expanded.html

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