Disney Sues DeSantis
Florida - Wednesday April 26, 2023: Disney sued Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday over the Republican Governor's 's takeover of its theme park district, alleging the governor has waged a "targeted campaign of government retaliation" against them after they publicly opposed a DeSantis backed law that critics have called “Don't Say Gay."
The suit, filed in Tallahassee, was filed minutes after a Disney World oversight board appointed by DeSantis voted to void a deal that placed the theme park's design and construction decisions in the company's hands. The DeSantis board on Wednesday said Disney’s move to retain control over their property was effectively unlawful and performed without proper public notice.
However Disney maintains that the actions that have been taken against the company have been "orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis," and the campaign the Governor is conducting "threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights.
The dispute began last year after Disney, in the face of significant pressure, publicly opposed a state law that bans classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades, a policy critics call “Don’t Say Gay.”
As punishment, DeSantis took over Disney World’s self-governing district and appointed a new board of supervisors that would oversee municipal services in the sprawling theme parks. But before the new board came in, the company pushed though an 11th hour agreement that stripped the new supervisors of much of their authority.
“Disney picked the fight with this board. We were not looking out for a fight,” said Martin Garcia, chair of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, adding “bottom line, what our lawyers have told us, is factually and legally what they created is an absolute legal mess. It will not work."
DeSantis has also vowed additional retribution, with proposals to enhance state oversight of the resort’s rides and monorail, as well as a suggestion to build a prison nearby.
Disney has said all agreements made with the previous board were legal and approved in a public forum. Disney CEO Bob Iger has also said that any actions against the company that threaten jobs or expansion at its Florida resort was not only “anti-business” but “anti-Florida.”
Disney seeks the following relief:
Disney is asking the Court to void the Florida Legislature's passage of the Governor's proposal stripping the company of its special governing status, and Disney wants the court to declare that what the Governor and lawmakers did was unenforceable, and "an unlawful taking of Disney’s property rights without payment of just compensation."
No punitive damage award is asked for, but Disney is seeking attorney’s fees and costs.
READ the Introduction to the lawsuit below:
1. For more than half a century, Disney has made an immeasurable impact on Florida and its economy, establishing Central Florida as a top global tourist destination and attracting tens of millions of visitors to the State each year. People and families from every corner of the globe have traveled to Walt Disney World because of the unrivaled guest experience it provides and the deep emotional connection that generations of fans have with Disney’s timeless stories and characters.
2. A targeted campaign of government retaliation—orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech—now threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights.
3. Today’s action is the latest strike: At the Governor’s bidding, the State’s oversight board has purported to “void” publicly noticed and duly agreed development contracts, which had laid the foundation for billions of Disney’s investment dollars and thousands of jobs. This government action was patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional. But the Governor and his allies have made clear they do not care and will not stop. The Governor recently declared that his team would not only “void the development agreement”—just as they did today—but also planned “to look at things like taxes on the hotels,” “tolls on the roads,” “developing some of the property that the district owns” with “more amusement parks,” and even putting a “state prison” next to Walt Disney World. “Who knows? I just think the possibilities are endless,” he said.
4. Disney regrets that it has come to this. 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 weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain State officials.
5. Disney is enormously proud of the foundational role it has played in creating Central Florida’s tourism industry. The Reedy Creek Improvement District (“RCID” or the “District”), Disney’s local governing jurisdiction, was integral to its success from the beginning—in 1967.
6. Fast forward five decades, and Disney today is an unparalleled engine for economic growth in the State. Among other distinctions, Disney is one of Central Florida’s largest taxpayers, with more than $1.1 billion paid in state and local taxes last year. Disney is also one of the largest employers in the State, with more than 75,000 cast members.
7. The State of Florida has flourished in the years since Walt Disney himself surveyed many acres of swampland in 1963 and dreamed the possibility of Walt Disney World. Florida’s elected officials have long understood how consequential Disney is to the State’s economy and future, just as Disney has sought to be a constructive, responsible, and charitable Florida resident.
8. Governor DeSantis and his allies paid no mind to the governing structure that facilitated Reedy Creek’s successful development until one year ago, when the Governor decided to target Disney. 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.
9. Governor DeSantis announced that Disney’s statement had “crossed the line”—a line evidently separating permissible speech from intolerable speech—and launched a barrage of threats against the Company in immediate response. Since then, the Governor, the State Legislature, and the Governor’s handpicked local government regulators have moved beyond threats to official action, employing the machinery of the State in a coordinated campaign to damage Disney’s ability to do business in Florida. State leaders have not been subtle about their reasons for government intervention. They have proudly declared that Disney deserves this fate because of what Disney said. This is as clear a case of retaliation as this Court is ever likely to see.
10. At the Governor’s behest, the State Legislature first voted to dissolve the long-standing RCID, then ultimately voted to give near-complete control of RCID to the Governor himself. As the Florida representative who introduced the Reedy Creek dissolution bill declared to the Florida House State Affairs Committee: “You kick the hornet’s nest, things come up. And I will say this: You got me on one thing, this bill does target one company. It targets The Walt Disney Company.”
11. Disney has never wanted a fight with the Florida government. The Company sought to de-escalate the matter for nearly a year, trying several times to spark a productive dialogue with the DeSantis Administration. To no avail.
12. Amid great uncertainty about the lengths to which the State would go to keep punishing Disney for its views, RCID and the Company gave public notice, in January 2023, that they would enter into contracts to secure future development for the District and Walt Disney World—contracts that implemented a comprehensive plan for the District that the DeSantis Administration itself had found compliant with Florida law months earlier.
13. Through the development plan and implementing contracts, Disney set huge goals for itself and laid foundations for spectacular economic growth in Central Florida. Disney plans to invest over $17 billion in Walt Disney World over the next decade. The Company estimates that those investments will create 13,000 new Disney jobs in that same 10-year time period.
14. Big goals aside, these contracts are land use agreements between a developer and its local regulator. They are similar in character to contracts between other developers and special districts to fix long-term development rights and obligations, thereby facilitating the certainty needed to ensure investment and effective commercial progress. Contrary to misunderstandings and mischaracterizations by some government leaders, they do not undermine the newly constituted Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (“CFTOD” or the “District”) board’s ability to govern and exercise authority, including by imposing taxes, exercising the power of eminent domain, approving or disapproving building permit applications (including for the projects carried out pursuant to the development agreement), building roads, providing emergency services, or issuing bonds.
15. Moreover, nothing about these contracts was a surprise: They were discussed and approved after open, noticed public forums in compliance with Florida law. And in the very same legislation that replaced the elected board governing Disney with board members picked by the Governor, the State Legislature reaffirmed the enforceability of all prior contracts, including those here.
16. Disney takes seriously its responsibility to shareholders, employees, and the many residents and local businesses in Central Florida whose livelihoods depend on Walt Disney World. And Disney now is forced to defend itself against a State weaponizing its power to inflict political punishment.
17. It is a clear violation of Disney’s federal constitutional rights—under the Contracts Clause, the Takings Clause, the Due Process Clause, and the First Amendment—for the State to inflict a concerted campaign of retaliation because the Company expressed an opinion with which the government disagreed. And it is a clear violation of these rights for the CFTOD board to declare its own legally binding contracts void and unenforceable. Disney thus seeks relief from this Court in order to carry out its long-held business plans.
18. Disney finds itself in this regrettable position because it expressed a viewpoint the Governor and his allies did not like. Disney wishes that things could have been resolved a different way. But Disney also knows that it is fortunate to have the resources to take a stand against the State’s retaliation—a stand smaller businesses and individuals might not be able to take when the State comes after them for expressing their own views. In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.