In a conflict of interest, Walt Disney World has escalated its legal skirmish with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a battle that could shape the future of development around the beloved theme park. The stakes are high, with both sides locked in a bitter feud over the governance of Disney's Reedy Creek Improvement District and its special tax district.
Disney's latest salvo came in the form of a series of counterclaims filed against the board of supervisors appointed by Governor DeSantis to oversee the special tax district. These counterclaims allege breach of contract and violations of constitutional rights, specifically due process and free speech. The entertainment giant seeks not only damages but also an injunction requiring the district to adhere to existing development agreements.
The roots of this legal showdown can be traced back to the controversial “The Parental Rights in Education Act (HB 1557),” commonly referred to as the "Don't Say Gay" law, which Disney publicly rejected. This law prohibits classroom education on gender identity and sexual orientation from kindergarten through third grade, sparking a retaliatory move by Governor DeSantis to reshape the leadership of the special tax district. He now has the authority to appoint all five members of its governing body.
Disney responded with legal maneuvers of its own. Just before the state legislature enacted the law, the company quietly forged a new development pact, essentially safeguarding its development privileges. The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD) cried foul, alleging that the prior board didn't receive adequate notice to oppose this deal.
Disney's recent counterclaims take direct aim at the CFTOD. They accuse the district of breaching contracts by challenging Disney's "duty to perform" under these agreements and seeking to declare them void. In a court filing, Disney's lawyer, Daniel Petrocelli, asserts that the company has suffered and will continue to suffer damages if the district evades its contractual obligations due to noncompliance by the board.
Disney's primary objective appears to be the enforcement of these contracts, specifically after a board decision, adequate notice, and a public hearing—a stance it staunchly defends in the face of mounting legal challenges.
This legal saga has seen no shortage of twists and turns. In July 2023, a Florida judge rejected Disney's bid to dismiss the case, emphasizing that it shouldn't be considered moot due to a state law and should proceed independently of the ongoing federal case regarding the agreement's validity.
Governor DeSantis, who finds himself in a fierce battle with former President Donald Trump in the Republican primary, has been criticized for what some perceive as retaliatory actions against Disney. CEOs and former Republican governors have even entered the fray, filing amicus curiae briefs in the federal court lawsuit to decry DeSantis' actions as undemocratic.
As this legal clash between Disney and Governor DeSantis unfolds, the outcome could have far-reaching implications not just for the entertainment giant but also for the broader landscape of theme park development in Florida. It remains to be seen how the courts will ultimately decide this high-stakes showdown.