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DeSantis vs. Disney: The story of a year of misunderstandings

Disney's attacks on Florida's governor over the "Don't Say Gay" law were the beginning of a war that seems to have no end in sight.

Ron DeSantis y Disney continúan su guerra por el gobierno del Distrito en el que se sitúa Walt Disney World.

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Ron DeSantis has been at odds with entertainment giant Walt Disney Corporation for more than a year. The company's refusal to support Florida's governor with Senate Bill 1834 (nicknamed as Don't Say Gay) was the beginning of a war that does not appear to be reaching a conclusion any time soon, and where neither the Mickey Mouse company nor the governor of the Sunshine State seem to be giving up. These are the most significant events of this year of disagreements between Disney and Ron DeSantis.

It all started on March 8, 2022. On that day, several Florida legislators passed a new rule: House Bill 1834. The measure, officially titled Parental Rights in Education, prohibitedin public schools, from kindergarten through third grade "classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity," among other measures. Critics were quick to react to the law and dubbed it Don't Say Gay. They asserted that the rule was "an affront against LGBT youth" by preventing discussion of these issues in schools.

Chapek enters the controversy

Disney was quick to enter the controversy. It did so a day later, on March 9, 2022, when the company's then CEO, Bob Chapek, claimed he had called DeSantis to show his disappointment with the proposal:

I called Governor DeSantis this morning to express our disappointment and concern that if legislation becomes law it could be used to target gay, lesbian, non-binary and transgender kids and families.

In addition, Chapek assured that Disney would sign the Human Rights Campaign statement. A measure that opposed legislation targeting the LGBT community. Along with this, it announced that the company would donate five million to LGBT organizations.

In his speech, Chapek stated that DeSantis had agreed to meet with him to modify the law. This was not the case. The war had begun. The governor of Florida appeared to deny everything that the CEO of the mouse company had previously stated:

You have companies like a Disney that are gonna say and criticize parents' rights, they're gonna criticize the fact that we don't want transgenderism in kindergarten and first grade classrooms. In Florida our policy's going to be based on the best interest of Florida citizens, not on the musing of woke corporations.

The dispute intensifies

Twenty-four hours later, on March 10, Disney makes a controversial decision and announces that, after Chapek meets with employees, the company is halting "all political donations in the state of Florida."

Two weeks later, and in the face of DeSantis' refusal to change the law, Disney employees go on strike worldwide. During the work stoppages, workers are calling on Walt Disney Corporation to publicly support LGBT employees. Chapek apologized for not being "a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights" and, again, reports a new donation to gay support groups, among a series of other measures.

DeSantis, in response, again criticizes Disney. The entertainment giant, far from giving up, issues the following statement announcing that it joins the efforts of several critics of the bill. Its objective: to repeal it.

Governor Ron DeSantis did not remain silent and was quick to react to this statement. He did so through a press conference in which he assured that he believed Disney had "crossed the line": "We’re going to make sure we’re fighting back when people are threatening our parents and threatening our kids."

Self-government comes into play

A month later, on April 19, Ron DeSantis takes it a step further: Disney's self-governance is at stake. On that day, remember Deadline, Florida's governor calls a special session on redistricting. Among the items to be addressed is one that generates controversy: considering the repeal of the Reedy Creek special district.

The zone covers two counties and 25,000 acres, however, the curious part comes when it is discovered that it was created in 1967 to give Disney control over the land on which its theme park, Walt Disney World, is located. Thanks to the Reedy Creek Improvement District, Disney can get rid of most state and local regulations and, in addition, can collect taxes, follow its own building codes and provide emergency services for all of its theme parks and resorts in the state.

Two days later, several legislators passed SB 4 dissolving Disney's Reedy Creek Improvement District effective June 1, 2023. DeSantis was quick to rubberstamp it and assured that the company faced further consequences if Disney did not also eliminate its diversity and inclusion program.

Taxpayers sue the state of Florida

Now taxpayers are standing in the way. Four Central Florida residents are suing the state, claiming that the effort to silence Disney will hurt them. In addition, it could result in the layoff of thousands of people and would violate the Florida Taxpayers' Bill of Rights.

However, a judge agrees with DeSantis. U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga says residents of Orange and Osceola counties do not have the legal standing to sue. In addition, the federal court does not have the authority to rule on the issue and the law will not go into effect until 2023.

DeSantis continues to not give up. Despite his victory in front of taxpayers, he believes there is still work to be done and, at an event at Seminole State College, he assures that it will be the state that takes control of the district and wrests self-governance away from Disney:

You know what, even though there are ways where you could potentially have local communities absorb jurisdiction over Disney, after seeing them threatening to raise taxes on their citizens, we are not going to be in a situation where we’re just going to be giving them locally control. More likely that the state will simply assume control and make sure that we’re able to impose the law and make sure we’re collecting the taxes.

Bob Chapek, fired from Disney

Several months pass before the Magic Kingdom is once again at the center of controversy. The entertainment giant is once again on the front pages of several media outlets when it announces that the company's former CEO, Bob Chapek, is stepping down. He will be replaced by Bob Iger, former executive chairman of the Walt Disney Company.

Iger will hold the position on a temporary basis but everyone knows it is an attempt to calm the waters with Florida. After all, Chapek was an enemy of DeSantis and the Republican had just revalidated his position as governor of the Sunshine State.

Disney's decision to fire Chapek will not change DeSantis' mind. On December 2, despite the fact that Iger is now in charge, the governor unveils that he is working on a plan to remove self-governance from the magic corporation.

Bill to prevent Disney self-governance goes into effect

The plan is unveiled on January 6, 2023. This is a bill in the Florida Legislature to be introduced by one of the counties. The goal: to eliminate the special powers of self-government as well as the tax privileges that Walt Disney World has. This was reported by Taryn Fenske, DeSantis' director of communications:

Under the proposed legislation, Disney will no longer control its own government, it will live under the same laws as everyone else, will be responsible for their outstanding debts, and will pay their fair share of taxes.

The measure will allow the Sunshine State to oversee Disney and will also hold the corporation accountable if necessary. A bill that, again, serves to demonstrate that DeSantis will not have preferential treatment with anyone. Not even with Disney. This was explained by Adrian Lukis, the governor's former chief of staff:

While this will be painful for Disney, I expect businesses throughout the state will be proud of their Governor for making it clear that he doesn’t care who you are, or how politically connected you may be - no one gets special treatment in Florida.

Republicans introduce the bill

February 2023 begins the end of Disney's self-governance in Florida. The bill is now ready to be signed. This legislation would eliminate the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which would then become the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

The measure would give Governor Ron DeSantis the authority to appoint members to the District's governing body, a five-member Board of Supervisors. Previously, they were appointed by Disney and, under the new rule, it would be the governor who would appoint this Board of Supervisors. However, he must have the backing of the Florida State Senate, which must give its approval to these appointments. This supervisory body, moreover, may not have among its members any person or family member who works, or, has worked for Disney or any other theme park operators in the last three years.

In addition to this, other measures that would affect the corporation would be if the bill allows Florida to tax Disney for potential projects outside the District's boundaries, ensure that the entertainment giant pays the $700 plus millions in unsecured debt and, most importantly, it would impose Florida law whereby Disney would no longer be able to receive preferential treatment.

In addition, DeSantis' press secretary, Bryan Griffin assured that they said they will also limit Disney's permission to build an airport or nuclear power plant in the district, as well as being able to purchase land through the dominion by which Disney is now governed or have no-bid construction contracts.

DeSantis signs the bill

At the end of February, Ron DeSantis signs CS/HB 9B into law. Disney thus loses its ability to govern itself and the Republican celebrates with an event in Lake Buena Vista where he publicly initials the new measure: "Today the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end. There’s a new sheriff in town, and accountability will be the order of the day."

The legislation, in this case, does not eliminate the special district, but allows DeSantis to appoint a new board. It also allows him to take actions such as those highlighted in the following tweet, including, and not limited to, ensuring that Disney pays the same taxes as everyone else and ending the secrecy that reigns at Disney by ensuring transparency.

The Empire Strikes Back: seizing the Board's powers

Disney decided to stand up to him and, before DeSantis signed the bill into law, entered into a series of restrictive covenants that stripped the new board of many of its powers. Through this pact, the board that ran the former Reedy Creek District transferred all of its powers to Disney. Taryn Fenske, spokeswoman for Governor DeSantis' office, issued the following statement on the matter.

The Executive Office of the Governor is aware of Disney’s last-ditch efforts to execute contracts just before ratifying the new law that transfers rights and authorities from the former Reedy Creek Improvement District to Disney. An initial review suggests these agreements may have significant legal infirmities that would render the contracts void as a matter of law. We are pleased the new Governor-appointed board retained multiple financial and legal firms to conduct audits and investigate Disney’s past behavior.

The board members were quick to respond, assuring that they would take legal action in the face of Disney's attempt to take away their rights. But Disney defends itself and assures that its actions have been completely legal and that, moreover, they were done publicly:

All agreements signed between Disney and the District were appropriate, and were discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums in compliance with Florida Government in the Sunshine law.

However, the fine print of this agreement casts doubt on its legality. As can be read in the agreement, this is valid until "21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, king of England."

New bill

DeSantis is not ready to give up. In the face of Disney's attack, he strikes back and creates a new bill, agreed with the leaders of the Florida House of Representatives and Senate. This time the goal is different: to "formally nullify" the pact between the Walt Disney Company and the Reedy Creek District.

"I will not allow Disney to have its own government in Central Florida. They are going to live under the same laws as everyone else," DeSantis said during a new press conference in Lake Buena Vista. At this conference, he announced new sanctions on Disney: the Magic Kingdom would have to face new taxes and, in addition, the monorail, transportation systems and attractions at Walt Disney World would have to pass external inspections that had eluded them until then and would do so with reinforced supervision.

Sanctions were not the only thing. DeSantis issued a new threat: the land on which the company's iconic amusement park is located could be the site of another amusement park or even a state prison in the future:

So, if you look at this whole special district, well, Disney Corporation obviously owns a lot, but the district owns other lands. And you know, frankly, I wasn't even thinking about that land. Oh, but now that I think about it, now people are saying, 'Well, what should we do with this land.' People have said, 'You know, maybe, maybe have another one, maybe create a state park, maybe try to do more amusement parks.' Someone even said, like, maybe you need another state prison. Who knows? I mean, I think the possibilities are endless.

North Carolina offers itself as a new state to host Disney

In the face of the war between Disney and Florida, North Carolina enters the game. It does so by introducing the Mickey Freedom Restoration Act. Legislation whereby Walt Disney World could relocate to North Carolina. Democratic Senator Michael Garrett was one of the main sponsors and stressed that the "culture war" between Florida and the corporation was endangering its economy.

That's why, via a Twitter thread, the senator asserted that "North Carolina is a great place to do business" and criticized Ron DeSantis' stance on the war: "Politicians who put their economy at risk to boost their own political ambitions are a liability," he argued.

Disney files lawsuit against DeSantis

At the end of April, after a year of disputes, Disney decided to sue Ron DeSantis. They allege that the company is being targeted by a Republican political campaign aimed at discrediting it and that the Florida government is acting in an "anti-business" manner.

As the lawsuit reads, the entertainment giant accuses the Florida government of "creating an organized campaign of statewide retaliation, orchestrated at every turn by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney's free views, and which threatens the firm's business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region and violates its constitutional rights."

DeSantis, for his part, downplays the importance of the lawsuit. At the Celebrate the Faces of Israel conference this week, the Florida governor says the company simply dislikes "living by the same rules as everyone else."

They’re upset because they’re having to live by the same rules as everybody else. They don’t want to pay the same taxes as everybody else and they want to be able to control things without proper oversight. The days of putting one company on a pedestal with no accountability are over in the state of Florida.

Federal judge recuses himself

The final chapter was signed by the judge to whom the lawsuit was assigned, recusing himself due to a conflict of interest. In a statement, Magistrate Judge Martin Fitzpatrick noted that he is related "in the third degree" to someone working for one of the parties, requiring him to step aside. The court indicated that the case will be assigned to another magistrate.

Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board countersues Disney

In early May, the board appointed by Ron DeSantis to oversee the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District sued Disney in response to litigation filed by Disney against the governor of The Sunshine State.

The chairman of the board, Martin Garcia, said in statements reported by Politico that they were suing the entertainment giant because they were left with no choice but to take the case to court:

Disney sued us, we have no choice now but to respond. The district will seek justice in state court here in central Florida where both it and Disney reside and do business.

Board bill to void Disney deal approved

On May 4, the Florida legislature approved a bill introduced by the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board to nullify Disney's agreement with the Reedy Creek District. This previous agreement caused the CFTOD to lose the vast majority of its powers.

This legislation allows the tourism board to oversee Disney World, as well as legally void any agreements the company made three months before the board was created. The bill was signed into law that same day by Ron DeSantis. By signing the document, the pact made between Disney and the former Reedy Creek District was legally nullified. This news was celebrated by the governor during a press conference in Tallahassee: "Self-governance is over," he proclaimed.

Disney halts plans to build a business park in Florida

In mid-May, the war between Ron DeSantis and Disney returned. This time the mouse company attacked and announced that it was canceling plans to build a corporate campus in Lake Nona (Florida). This project had a cost of almost one billion dollars and was going to create 2,000 jobs. However, the business park will now be erected in Southern California, where workers will work in the areas of digital technology, finance and product development.

Josh D'Amaro, head of Disney's parks, assured in an email sent to his employees that the decision was due to "changing business conditions," that is, the complications that Ron DeSantis continues to generate for the entertainment giant:

Given the considerable changes that have occurred since the announcement of this project, including new leadership and changing business conditions, we have decided not to move forward with construction of the campus. This was not an easy decision to make but I believe it is the right one.

The reaction from Democrats was of course, not long in coming. The Orlando area representative in the House of Representatives, Anna Eskamani, released a statement blaming the governor for the job losses:

Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board member resigns

On Saturday, May 27, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board lost one of its members: Michael Sasso resigned from his position after only three months in office.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that the lawyer didn't give a reason for why he chose to leave his position. It could have to do with the fact that his wife, Meredith Sasso, had just been promoted by Governor Ron DeSantis and is now a member of the Florida Supreme Court, although the lawyer never confirmed that theory.

DeSantis claims Disney is "sexualizing children"

Disney CEO Bob Iger noted in an interview in July that the Florida governor's accusation that Disney is "sexualizing children" is "preposterous and inaccurate."

In response, DeSantis' team uploaded a video to social media in which several Disney executives speak openly about the inclusion of queer messaging and even a "secret gay agenda" in its content.

Walt Disney Company refuses to drop lawsuit against DeSantis for retaliation

In June, the Walt Disney Company sued DeSantis for retaliation. DeSantis advised the entertainment giant a month later to drop the lawsuit. However, in a response obtained by Deadline, Bob Iger assured that he had no intention of dropping the lawsuit.

As the company's CEO explained in the 28-page document, the motion was merely another attempt by DeSantis to "evade responsibility for his actions," and he was unwilling to allow it:

This case presents the fundamental question whether the Governor and the State can escape accountability for their open defiance of our Nation’s most cherished liberties. The Governor seeks to evade responsibility for his actions on a narrower ground, asserting that a governor cannot be held officially liable for implementing, administering, and enforcing state laws that punish residents for political statements violating a state-prescribed speech code. The motion seeks dismissal on Article III standing, sovereign-immunity, and legislative-immunity grounds, but those principles have no application here.

DeSantis-appointed board eliminates Disney World's diversity and equity programs

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which oversees the Walt Disney World area, announced its decision to eliminate all diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs deemed discriminatory.

Glenton Gilzean, district administrator appointed by DeSantis, reported in a press release that the DEI programs cost taxpayers millions of dollars and also discriminated against Americans:

The so-called diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives were advanced during the tenure of the previous board and they were illegal and simply unamerican. Our district will no longer participate in any attempt to divide us by race or advance the notion that we are not created equal. As the former head of the Central Florida Urban League, a civil rights organization, I can say definitively that our community thrives only when we work together despite our differences.

DeSantis advises Disney to drop lawsuit against him

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis advised Disney in mid-August to drop the lawsuit against him for alleged political retaliation and to assume that the company will no longer enjoy the "special privileges" it once had.

In an interview with CNBC, DeSantis was asked what he would tell Disney CEO Bob Iger about the legal dispute they face, and the governor explained that, unlike what many may believe, he liked Walt Disney World so much that he married his wife there:

So it’s not like we’re opposed. I mean, we’ve appreciated working with them over the years, but I would just say, go back to what you did well. I think it’s going to be the right business decision. ... They’re suing the state of Florida; they’re going to lose that lawsuit. ... This is a great place to do business. Your competitors all do very well here. So all we want to do is treat everybody the same and let’s move forward. But I’m not fine with giving extraordinary privileges.

Disney drops all charges except those pertaining to free speech

Three weeks later, in September 2023, Disney made a decision to reduce the extent of the lawsuit it had filed months earlier against the governor of Florida. The document is now 48 pages long, compared to the 84 pages originally filed. The new suit focused solely on ensuring that the campaign carried out by Ron DeSantis violated its right to exercise the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment:

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.

The decision comes after Disney asked in early September to withdraw other claims in the lawsuit. Those, in particular, were based on the company's loss of development contracts. However, a company spokesperson told ABC in a statement that they would continue to defend those contracts, even though they were no longer part of the lawsuit:

We will continue to fight vigorously to defend these contracts, because these agreements will determine whether or not Disney can invest billions of dollars and generate thousands of new jobs in Florida.