DeSantis Versus Disney: Why Florida is in a feud with one of its biggest employers

Criticism of the Parental Rights in Education law has led to dueling lawsuits

Disney's Magic Kingdom and Gov. DeSantis. (Copyright 2023 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

ORLANDO, Fla. – “You don’t mess with the Mouse.”

It’s one of those things people say in Florida, along with “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes” and “Don’t feed the alligators.”

But Gov. Ron DeSantis, and the Republican majority in the Florida Legislature, have been feuding with Mickey Mouse and the Walt Disney Company for a year.

Criticism from Disney executives of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law rankled DeSantis and conservative lawmakers. After that criticism, DeSantis and the Florida Legislature remade the special governing district that oversaw Disney property in Florida, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, giving the governor more control over the district.

Disney is suing DeSantis in federal court, accusing him and the Florida government of violating the company’s constitutional rights in retaliation for that criticism.

Disney is more than one of the top employers and taxpayers in Central Florida. It’s also an entertainment juggernaut and a multinational corporation.

As DeSantis prepares to run for president, Disney is likely to follow him in the campaign too, and the feud may influence how people see him.

“I think initially he gained a lot of points by standing up to Disney trying to eliminate their special governing district out there,” said News 6 political analyst Dr. Jim Clark from the University of Central Florida. “But I think the longer this plays on, I wonder if people are wondering, ‘Hey, is this going to ever end?’”

Disney’s political place in Florida

Walt Disney World would not exist in Florida without politicians willing to work with the company.

In 1967, Florida lawmakers created the Reedy Creek Improvement District, one of several pieces in the deal Disney made with lawmakers to build Walt Disney World in Florida.

Florida defines a special district as “a unit of local government created for a special purpose, as opposed to a general purpose, which has jurisdiction to operate within a limited geographic boundary and is created by general law, special act, local ordinance, or by rule of the Governor and Cabinet.”

The concept is not unique in Florida. The Villages has a special district that oversees it. So do Orlando International Airport and Daytona International Speedway.

Reedy Creek maintained all the public roads and infrastructure in its borders, along with sewers, electric power generation, waste, water treatment, emergency services and land use and environmental protections.

If Disney needed a land permit, it could go to its special district and apply for it.

And all of this was subject to oversight by the state government as well, which received reports from RCID.

As Disney World grew in size and popularity, Disney grew in influence in Florida politics. It spent millions of dollars in political donations to political candidates.

According to records by the Florida Division of Elections, for the 2020 election cycle, Disney subsidiaries donated more than $4 million to political candidates, parties and political action committees.

This is just state candidates and groups, it does not include contributions to federal political candidates and causes.

Dozens of Florida representatives and senators received $1,000 donations from Disney subsidiaries, from both parties.

Among the candidates who got donations are some of the very state lawmakers who would go on to write the bills that went after Reedy Creek, like State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County.

Disney also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party in Florida in 2020.

Disney’s influence has given it the ability to shape policy in Florida, including exemptions from laws when needed. For instance, the large theme parks in Florida, including Disney, do not have to worry about ride inspection laws that smaller amusement attractions in Florida have to contend with. Instead, Disney self-reports.

Parental Rights in Education

In 2022, Florida lawmakers passed a bill called Parental Rights in Education, HB 1557, which among other things would ban schools and school districts from discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, and in other grades where needed, and allow for parental objection and even lawsuits.

Critics immediately blasted the bill because they said it would stymie discussion of LGBTQ people and concepts in schools, either actively or passively through the broad wording of the bill. They called it “Don’t Say Gay.”

Disney workers protested the bill and called on CEO Robert Chapek to use Disney’s influence to speak out and maybe even stop the bill.

It wouldn’t have been the first time Disney had spoken out against anti-LGBTQ policies. In 2016, Disney threatened to boycott Georgia, where it was filming the highly-popular Marvel movies, over a bill that was considered anti-LGBTQ. The governor of that state at the time eventually vetoed the bill.

Chapek told shareholders at a meeting in 2022 that Disney had opposed the bill, but wanted to try and work “behind the scenes” to get DeSantis to oppose the bill, rather than initially take a public position.

Chapek eventually did that.

“It is clear that this is not just an issue about a bill in Florida, but instead yet another challenge to basic human rights. You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry,” he said in a letter to Disney cast members.

Disney increased funding to LGBTQ causes and also put a pause on campaign donations, which as of this writing still seems to be in place, according to Florida Division of Elections records.

In response, the Florida legislature used two special sessions to first, dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District by June 2023, and then, earlier this year, to remake the district instead, with a new name, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, and a governing board handpicked by DeSantis.

“Disney is a guest in the state of Florida and today we remind them of that,” Fine said when introducing the Reedy Creek dissolution bill in 2022.

Has Disney ever criticized Florida policy before?

It’s tough to find evidence of Disney issuing a direct, official criticism of Florida policy before, but Disney certainly made moves.

In 2008 for instance, the Florida Legislature put in place a law that allowed Floridians to keep guns locked in their cars while at work.

Disney surprised lawmakers by declaring publicly it had a special exemption from the new law and could continue to ban guns on Disney property. This was because the law contained a loophole for companies that held federal fireworks permits.

Disney eventually relaxed that rule to allow guns on parts of Disney property where fireworks were not stored or used.

In 2020, Disney also kept more stringent COVID-19 policies even as DeSantis tried to reopen the state and ban mandates.

But Disney largely made moves behind the scenes in Florida, said Clark.

“Disney has 38 lobbyists in Tallahassee,” Clark said. “And for half a century they have always gotten what they wanted from tax breaks to exemptions to regulations. The first time they criticize the governor, the governor and the legislature turn on them with punitive measures.”

Disney’s power play

DeSantis called the remaking of the Reedy Creek Improvement District “the end of the corporate kingdom.”

It wasn’t really clear what Disney’s next move would be. Some experts said a lawsuit was possible.

Iger voiced his displeasure. During a shareholder’s meeting, Iger said the state’s actions were retaliation for a position Disney took, and said it sounded “not just anti-business, but it sounds anti-Florida.”

But in official Disney statements, the company betrayed nothing.

“Disney works under a number of different models and jurisdictions around the world, and regardless of the outcome, we remain committed to providing the highest quality experience for the millions of guests who visit each year,” Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World Resort, said in a statement last year.

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District soon learned that Disney had already made a move right under everyone’s noses.


When the new oversight board began its work, it soon discovered that in February at a public meeting, Disney and the Reedy Creek Improvement District entered into an agreement that stripped RCID and any future board of much of its governing power over Disney property, handing it to Disney “until 21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, King of England, living as of the date of this declaration.”

The meeting happened while lawmakers held their special session to create the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, and Disney said it followed all of the state’s rules to make the deal public.

Return fire

DeSantis and the Florida Legislature promised “very, very strong actions” in return for Disney’s move.

The legislature first passed a law to allow the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District to nullify any agreement Disney entered with the former governing board.


Then they passed a law putting Disney’s monorail under inspection by the Florida Department of Transportation.

They also tried to carve out a new rule that would make Disney’s theme park attractions subject to inspection by the Florida Department of Agriculture. That measure failed.

DeSantis and the oversight district said more could be coming.

At one event, he said they were looking at “taxes on the hotels, we’re going to look at things like tolls on the roads, we’re going to look at things like developing some of the property that the district owns.”

DeSantis even joked at one point about allowing a non-Disney theme park or a state prison on the property.

Dueling lawsuits

The lawsuit that experts had been waiting for finally came.

Disney filed suit in federal court on April 26, alleging several constitutional violations by DeSantis and the oversight district, including the company’s First Amendment, contracting and due process rights.

“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,” Disney wrote in its suit.

The Central Florida tourism oversight district filed a lawsuit in state court on May 1, accusing Disney of making a backroom deal with the former Reedy Creek Improvement District. The lawsuit claims Reedy Creek unlawfully delegated governmental authority to a private entity.


David vs. Goliath?

DeSantis has trumpeted his battle with Disney in the run-up to his presidential campaign. He’s posited it as a necessary part of the fight against “the woke mind virus.”

“In Florida, gender ideology has no place in our schools, and if that means taking on Disney to make sure that’s the case, we will do it,” DeSantis said at an event at Liberty University.

Clark believes this is a battle that will go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I think it’s the battle that’s gonna go on for the rest of (DeSantis’) governorship,” Clark said. “I think he thought it was over a year ago that he had defeated Disney. Then Disney came back and then he thought he had defeated them a second time. Now they’ve gone to the federal courts. The DeSantis supporters have gone to the state courts. And this is going to be in the court system for years now to come probably till the end of his term. I don’t think he anticipated it going on this long.”

But aside from the question of whether DeSantis can win in the courts, a bigger question for the governor, as he runs for president, is whether he can win the court of public opinion.

“We may hate the lines and the cost of tickets, but we like Disney movies. We like the attractions and things like that. So Ron DeSantis is taking on one of the most popular companies in the country,” Clark said.

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About the Author:

Christie joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021.