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DeSantis board approves suing Disney in latest tug-of-war

The board also approved defending itself in federal court in Tallahassee where Disney filed its lawsuit last Wednesday against the governor, the board and its five members

Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis arrives at the Foreign Office to visit Britain's Foreign Secretary in London, Friday, April 28, 2023.Alberto Pezzali (AP)

Days after Disney sued Florida’s governor in federal court for what it described as retaliation for opposing the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Disney World’s governing board — made up of Gov. Ron DeSantis appointees — filed a lawsuit Monday against the entertainment giant.

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District sued Disney in state court in Orlando and voted to defend itself in federal court in Tallahassee where the entertainment company filed its lawsuit last Wednesday.

The Disney lawsuit against the governor, the board and its five members asks a judge to void the governor’s takeover of the theme park district previously controlled by Disney for 55 years. The oversight board’s lawsuit seeks to maintain its oversight of design and construction in the district that governs Disney World’s 25,000 acres after the previous Disney-controlled board signed over those powers to the company before the DeSantis-appointed board members held their first meeting earlier this year.

The DeSantis board’s lawsuit was filed Monday afternoon in Orange County and claims the agreements with Disney “reek of a backroom deal.” The previous board members failed to give proper notice about the agreements, lacked the authority to make them, unlawfully delegated governmental authority to a private entity and the agreements are unenforceable under Florida, according to the suit.

“We will seek justice in our own backyard,” Martin Garcia, chair of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, said at Monday morning’s special meeting approving the lawsuit.

An email seeking comment was sent Monday morning to Disney officials.

Disney filed its lawsuit last week after the oversight board appointed by DeSantis voted to void a deal that gave the company authority over design and construction decisions in its sprawling properties near Orlando.

Disney’s lawsuit was the latest tug-of-war in a more than year-old feud between Disney and DeSantis that has engulfed the governor in criticism as he prepares to launch an expected presidential bid in the coming months.

DeSantis, who has framed himself as a Republican firebrand able to deftly implement his conservative agenda without drama, has dived headlong into the fray with the beloved company and major tourism driver, as business leaders and White House rivals bash his stance as a rejection of the small-government tenets of conservatism.

The fight 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 11th-hour agreements that stripped the new supervisors of much of their authority.

In response, DeSantis and Florida lawmakers vowed to pass legislation that would repeal the agreements and end an exemption for Disney parks when it comes to ride inspections by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The agriculture agency is responsible for inspecting amusement rides in Florida, but an exception was carved out for the state’s largest theme park operators, such as Disney and Universal Destinations & Experiences, which do their own safety inspections. Under the proposal, the exemption would end for rides in special governmental districts, which basically targets just Disney World.

“No corporation is above the law and the people of this state,” DeSantis said Monday at a news conference in Titusville, along Florida’s Space Coast.

The creation of the self-governing district by the Florida Legislature was instrumental in Disney’s decision in the 1960s to build near Orlando. The company had told the state at the time that it planned to build a futuristic city that would include a transit system and urban planning innovations, so the company needed autonomy in building and deciding how to use the land. The futuristic city never materialized and instead morphed into a second theme park that opened in 1982.

The current board members, before and after the vote authorizing the state lawsuit against Disney on Monday, defended their work, claiming they were trying to promote better governance and bring the district into the 21st century.

Board member Ron Peri described being mocked in the media and getting hate mail. During the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting, a man who has a Disney timeshare told the board members, “You guys are terrible, and I think you all should resign.”

Peri, who used to run a Florida-based ministry and has been accused of making anti-LGBTQ statements, urged the public to give the new board a chance.

“Disney suing me? You’ve got to be kidding,” Peri said. “I have loved Disney World. My kids have enjoyed it. The Magic Kingdom is wonderful. It is my hope the actions we take will be better for everyone, Disney included.”

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