Disney Sues DeSantis Over Control of Its Florida Resort

The fight between Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and the Walt Disney Company is headed to court.

On Wednesday, a board appointed by Mr. DeSantis to oversee government services at Disney World voted to nullify two agreements that gave Disney vast control over expansion at the 25,000-acre resort complex. Within minutes, Disney sued Mr. DeSantis, the five-member board and other state officials in federal court, claiming “a targeted campaign of government retaliation.”

Last year, under pressure from its employees, Disney criticized a Florida education law labeled “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents and halted political donations in the state — and landed in the cross hairs of Mr. DeSantis, who put a plan in motion to revoke Disney World’s self-governing privileges. Disney’s lawsuit accused Mr. DeSantis of a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint.” The campaign, the complaint added, “now threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region and violates its constitutional rights.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. DeSantis had no immediate comment.

At the center of the fight between Mr. DeSantis and Disney is a special tax district that encompasses Disney World, which employs 75,000 people and attracts 50 million visitors annually. The district, created in 1967 southwest of Orlando, effectively turned the property into its own county, giving Disney unusual control over fire protection, policing, waste management, energy generation, road maintenance, bond issuance and development planning.

In February, lawmakers decided to allow the governor to appoint an oversight board for the district in an attempt to curtail the company’s autonomy. The state previously allowed Disney, Florida’s largest taxpayer, to select the board members.

Before the new board was in place, however, Disney pushed through the agreements in early February — in public meetings advertised in The Orlando Sentinel. One of the agreements gives Disney the ability to build 14,000 additional hotel rooms, a fifth theme park and three smaller parks. The other restricts the use of abutting land; no strip clubs, for instance.

When the DeSantis appointees reported for duty last month, they were outraged to discover that the previous, Disney-controlled board had approved the development agreement and restrictive covenants, limiting the new board’s power for decades to come.

Mr. DeSantis — a leading Republican presidential contender although he has not officially declared that he is running — also reacted with fury. He suggested a variety of potential punitive actions against Disney, including reappraising the value of the resort for property tax levies and developing land near the entrances to the resort. “Maybe create a state park, maybe try to do more amusement parks — someone even said, like, maybe you need another state prison,” he said at an April 17 news conference.

He also said that an effort was underway to give the state new authority over ride safety inspections at Disney World, as well as its 15-mile monorail transportation system, which carries an estimated 150,000 passengers a day.

The nullification vote by the board came after its general counsel, Daniel Langley, presented evidence of what he called “self-dealing” and “procedural unconscionability” by Disney in pushing through the agreements earlier this year. Mr. Langley and another board lawyer said Disney violated Florida law in multiple ways, including by failing to fully notify the public of the actions it took.

“What they created is an absolute legal mess,” Martin Garcia, the board chairman, said of Disney during the meeting.

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

Daniel M. Petrocelli, a high-powered Los Angeles litigator, filed the complaints on Disney’s behalf in United States District Court in Tallahassee. Mr. Petrocelli was the lawyer who former President Donald J. Trump turned to in 2016 when dealing with a class-action fraud case against the defunct Trump University.

Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, has characterized Mr. DeSantis as “anti-business” and “anti-Florida” for his actions. Mr. Iger has also signaled that future investment in Disney World could be at risk if the governor continued to use Disney as a political punching bag; the company has earmarked more than $17 billion in spending at the resort over the next decade, growth that would create an estimated 13,000 jobs at the company.

Disney paid and collected a total of $1.2 billion in state and local taxes in 2022, according to company disclosures.

“A company has a right to freedom of speech just like individuals do,” Mr. Iger said at Disney’s annual shareholder meeting this month. “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.”

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