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DeSantis-allied oversight board sues Disney over ‘backroom’ agreements that maintained Magic Kingdom’s ‘fiefdom’


A statue of Walt Disney and Micky Mouse stands in front of the Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Jan. 9, 2019. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ oversight board of Disney World has voted to claw back authority over the company’s theme park properties. The vote Wednesday, April 26, 2023, by the governor’s appointees voids a last-minute deal that placed control of theme park design and construction decisions in Disney’s hands. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File). Inset: Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Just days after Disney sued Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in federal court over alleged retaliation for the company’s opposition to an anti-LGBTQ law championed by the governor and his allies, the board governing the district where Disney sits has taken its grievances to state court, asking a judge to invalidate months-old agreements that would have maintained Disney’s control over the area.

The lawsuit, filed in Orange County on Monday by the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD), accuses Walt Disney Parks & Resorts of operating as a “fiefdom” that “governed itself, chose whether and how to enforce those laws against itself, and set its own tax rate.” It is the latest escalation in an already tense war of words — and now lawsuits — between the Mouse House and the leader of the Sunshine State.

It began in 2022, when then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek spoke out against the passage of a pending law that prohibits discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Chapek had called DeSantis to express his opposition and concerns; in response, DeSantis reportedly told the CEO he “shouldn’t get involved” and that “it’s not going to work out well for you.”

DeSantis signed the bill on March 28, 2022; shortly after, Disney issued a statement that it “never should have been signed into law” and that the company wanted it to either be “repealed by the [L]egislature or struck down in the courts.”

In DeSantis’ view, that statement “crossed the line,” and, according to Disney, the governor’s retaliatory “campaign of punishment” began. In April, DeSantis signed a bill — pushed through the state legislature by DeSantis allies — that would dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), the 25,000-acre parcel of land in Central Florida that Disney has managed under agreements with the government dating back to 1967. The decades-old agreements have allowed Disney to essentially function as its own “local governing jurisdiction” within the state; under the new law, the RCID would fully dissolve as of June 1.

Disney appeared to have won a last-minute reprieve in late March when it revealed that Disney had entered into formal contracts that would let Disney maintain control over development rights in the area, rendering the new CFTOD essentially powerless. The CFTOD, in turn, voted to invalidate those agreements on Wednesday, sparking Disney’s federal lawsuit.

That federal lawsuit appears to have prompted the CFTOD to file its complaint in state court on Monday. Although the board’s complaint acknowledges that “much good came from the special status that the Florida Legislature granted Disney in 1967,” the CFTOD accuses Disney of having “used its influence to obtain what must have seemed like permanent exemptions” from state laws that regulate other businesses.

The complaint appears to imply that the self-governing Disney didn’t follow state safety laws.

“Like other businesses in Florida, Disney is subject to building and fire codes that are supposed to protect the lives and safety of its employees and guests,” the complaint says. “But unlike other businesses in Florida, Disney did not have to worry that these safety rules would be enforced against it. That is because the Disney-controlled District board never adopted any mechanism for the enforcement of those codes.”

The lawsuit says that dissolving RCID was a step to “restore the people’s sovereignty” and the CFTOD — stacked with DeSantis supporters — is an “independent Board” governing the region.

The complaint also accuses Disney of subterfuge in connection with the formal agreements.

In an effort to stymie Florida’s elected representatives, Disney covertly cobbled together a series of eleventh-hour deals with its soon-to-be-replaced puppet government. Disney hoped to tie the hands of the new, independent Board and to preserve Disney’s special status as its own government in the District for at least the next thirty years. These agreements reek of a backroom deal — drafted by Disney with the acquiescence a lawyer who represented both Disney and the District, set for hearing without proper notice, and hustled through a compliant Disney-controlled Board that Disney knew would not dwell long on the issue. But perhaps out of haste or arrogance, Disney’s deals violate basic principles of Florida constitutional, statutory, and common law. As a result, they are null and void — not even worth the paper they were printed on.

The lawsuit says that the RCID didn’t have authority or jurisdiction to enter into the development agreements, hearings for the agreements were not properly publicized, and they violate both state law and Florida’s constitution.

According to Disney, the RCID has been key to Disney’s economic power in the region. In the lawsuit against DeSantis, the company says it pays more than $1.1 billion in state and local taxes and employs more than 75,000 people.

Disney did not immediately respond to Law&Crime’s request for comment about the CFTOD’s lawsuit.

Read the CFTOD’s complaint via Politico here.

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