Disney has accused Florida Governor Ron DeSantis of organising a campaign of “government retaliation” in a lawsuit. The new legal action sharply escalates the battle between the entertainment giant and the Republican politician.
The two sides have been fighting since Disney criticised a state law banning discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in primary schools. The lawsuit came after state officials voided a development deal involving the firm’s Florida theme park.
Disney said Mr DeSantis’ steps to assert control over its operations threatened its business and violated its constitutional rights. It asked the court to undo the moves.
“Disney regrets it has come to this,” the company’s parks division said in the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Florida.
“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 weaponise government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain state officials.”
Mr DeSantis, who is currently abroad on a round-the-world tour – has previously cast the state’s moves as efforts to remove special perks for a company that were no longer in the public interest. At one point he said the state would not “bend a knee to woke executives in California”.
“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,” his communications director Taryn Fenske said in response to the lawsuit.
“The 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 row with Disney, which opened the city-scale Walt Disney World in Florida in 1971 and is one of the state’s biggest employers – has elevated the profile of Mr DeSantis, who is widely seen as a potential Republican candidate for president.
He has supported measures like a ban on abortion after six weeks and the Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed by the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics, which bans discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity for pupils aged nine and under. The state expanded the ban to all grades this month.
Disney criticised that law last year after coming under pressure from its staff. Florida lawmakers subsequently voted to restructure the special district that had been created more than 50 years ago to oversee development of the land around Disney World, which includes four theme parks, dozens of hotels and entertainment venues.
The moves gave Mr DeSantis the power to appoint members to the district’s governing board, removing that authority from landowners in the 25,000-acre district, of which Disney is by far the biggest. “There’s a new sheriff in town,” Mr DeSantis declared of the move.
Before the new board was installed, however, Disney reached a last-minute deal outlining the scope of development in the district and giving Disney the right to review any changes to properties within its limits.
The contract limited the powers of the new board and included terms valid in perpetuity or until “21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, king of England”.
Mr DeSantis said Disney “tried to pull a fast one” and announced plans for government investigations and other potential actions. He openly referred to a series of possibilities, including new taxes, tolls and even opening a state prison near the park.
Disney boss Bob Iger has called Mr DeSantis’ fight with the company “anti-business” and “anti-Florida”.
In the lawsuit, the company said it has planned to invest $17bn at Walt Disney World over the next decade, noting “development and investment of this magnitude cannot effectively take place when it can be nullified or undermined at the whim of new political leadership”.
It said approval of the latest development deal came with proper public notice, including in a local newspaper.
The fight with Disney has appeared at odds with traditional conservative views against government interference with business rights, sparking criticism of Mr DeSantis from some Republicans.