Florida board picked by Ron DeSantis countersues Disney as feud escalates and queer people suffer

Ron DeSantis

The Florida board selected by governor Ron DeSantis to control development around Disney’s theme parks has countersued the entertainment giant for accusing him and the state of “weaponising government power” in an ongoing feud. 

Disney’s lawsuit, which was filed last week, states it has “exhausted efforts to seek a resolution” with Florida Republicans – including potential presidential candidate DeSantis – in an escalating feud over LGBTQ+ rights and legal control in Florida, leaving Disney “no choice but to file this lawsuit”.

In retaliation, the chairman of the board for the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, Martin Garcia, said “we have no choice now but to respond”, Insider reported.

On Monday (1 May), the district board sued Disney to void “backroom deals” favourable to the theme park, according to Reuters.

DeSantis sought to strip Disney of its ‘special status’ in Florida after a dispute over the state’s extreme Don’t Say Gay law.

Florida has some of the most extreme anti-LGBTQ+ laws in the US, with some residents leaving the state because of fears for queer family members.

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Since 1967, Disney’s special status has meant it’s had near-total control of the area in which its sprawling properties are based – called the Reedy Creek Improvement District. 

Ron DeSantis in front of a US flag
Ron DeSantis, Florida governor. (Getty)

The new counter-suit argues that Disney worked with its “puppet board” to “perpetuate its stranglehold” over the district and held agreements that were “riddled with procedural and substantive defects”. 

“The district will seek justice in state court here in central Florida where both it and Disney reside and do business,” Garcia said.

Garcia claims Disney’s lawsuit seeks to “to wrestle back the hands of time to 1967”, when it had near-total control over a large section of land in central Florida.

He added that the the Florida board’s lawsuit aims to bring “the district into the 21st century with new and better policies and practices”.

Disney seeks injunction on Republicans’ actions

Disney’s lawsuit, which follows DeSantis’ board voting to dissolve Disney’s historic development agreement on Wednesday (26 April), seeks an injunction on the Republicans’ actions against it and also legal costs. 

The lawsuit follows DeSantis’ attempt in April 2022 to strip Disney of its self-governing powers. Following his bid’s failure, the governor replaced the district’s board in February this year, packing it with conservatives.

Accusing DeSantis and state officials of a “relentless campaign to weaponise government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint”, Disney’s lawsuit alleges that the Republican-led effort violates its constitutional rights to free speech and to conduct contracts without state legal interference. 

Ron DeSantis and Disney continue row over Don’t Say Gay law

Disney struck a deal with Florida in 1967 to allow it near-total control over a large section of land in central Florida.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District functions like a local government, and has allowed the company control of utilities, emergency services, roads and building on the lands of its bustling theme park. 

In April last year, Florida lawmakers approved a bill that abolished special districts after Disney opposed the Don’t Say Gay law.

Before it could come into effect, another bill was passed which backtracked, after locals shared concerns that the change would burden taxpayers. Instead, the new bill gave the governor power to appoint the district’s board.

DeSantis has also threatened to build a state prison next to Disney World and called for state oversight of Disney World’s rides. 

In retaliation, Walt Disney World will reportedly hold the world’s largest LGBTQ+ conference – The Out & Equal Workplace Summit – in September this year, while Disneyland in California will also hold its first-ever official gay Pride in June.

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