Walt Disney takes on Florida Gov. DeSantis Over Government Overreach


Revenues & Profits

Revenues & Profits

Aiden Lim

On April 25, 2022 the Walt Disney Company filed a lawsuit against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and other officials. Disney accuses DeSantis of orchestrating a “campaign of government retaliation” against the company and violating its protected speech.

It’s the latest action in a feud that began over a year ago when Disney’s former CEO said he would work to overturn a law banning discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the schools. The “Parental Rights in Education Act” is referred to by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

At DeSantis’ urging, Republican lawmakers passed a bill that stripped DOisney of its self-governing authority. But before the law took effect, Disney signed a deal with its outgoing board allowing it to retain development rights on the 40-square mile district. It also included covenants that gave Disney the final say on any alterations to the property.

At a meeting near Orlando, DeSantis’ handpicked board voted to invalidate that agreement. Moments later, Disney filed a 77-page lawsuit in federal court, charging DeSantis and other officials with violations of the contracts clause, the takings clause, due process and their First Amendment right to protected speech. In their lawsuit, Disney stated, “This government action was patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional.” The company is asking a federal judge to declare the board’s action “unlawful and unenforceable.”

Before voting to invalidate Disney’s development deal, the district board heard a lengthy presentation from their lawyers detailing what they said were procedural missteps made by Disney’s lawyers that, in their view, rendered it “void and unenforceable.” They said all parties had not received proper notice of the vote on the agreement and that it should have also been approved by the district’s two cities. Disney upholds the argument that proper notices were sent out and the development deal was approved in an open meeting in compliance with Florida law.

Before voting to strike down Disney’s development deal, the new district board received the opinions of a number of independent business owners who have restaurants and retail shops at Disney properties. Several said they were concerned new regulations and taxes could raise their costs and make their businesses unprofitable. Governor DeSantis has talked about raising taxes and putting toll roads in the district. He’s also discussed using some of the land for additional development and even a new prison. Board chairman Martin Garcia told business owners their taxes would be going up, in part to pay for legal fees related to the DeSantis’ dispute with Disney.

Debra McDonald, a resident of Celebration, a community originally built by Disney that is adjacent to the theme park, told the board that, because of the ongoing feud, “many in our community are afraid.” McDonald said, “It has hurt us deeply. It’s not just between the Governor and Disney. It affects everyone around him.”

In response to the lawsuit, DeSantis’ communications director Taryn Fenske said, “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. This 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.”