Disney sues DeSantis, alleging political effort to hurt business


Walt Disney Co. sued Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, alleging he’s threatening billions of dollars in business as retaliation for the company speaking against his policies.

The lawsuit Disney filed Wednesday in federal court in Florida came amid an escalating dispute over the powers of the municipal authority that governs Florida theme parks ahead of a controversial takeover by representatives of DeSantis. That board oversees government services at Disney World, which employs 75,000 people.

A statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse stands in front of the Cindrella’s castle at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

Bloomberg News

“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,” Disney claimed.

The company said DeSantis’ threat to “void” publicly noticed and duly agreed contracts governing services at the theme park was “patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional.”

Disney asked the court for an order declaring DeSantis’ actions unlawful.

“This lawsuit is yet another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of the Florida voters and operate outside the bounds of the law,” DeSantis communications director Taryn Fenske said in an emailed statement. “We are unaware of any legal right that a company has to operate its own government.”

A Republican and potential 2024 presidential candidate, DeSantis kicked off a feud with Disney last year after the company criticized a law championed by the governor that restricted classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity.

DeSantis responded by seizing control of the board that manages the day-to-day operations of Disney’s theme parks in Florida and appointed his own people. But Disney pushed through changes at the last minute that would weaken the municipal authority hand-picked by DeSantis.

Last week, DeSantis vowed to overturn the changes Disney made and further threatened the company, suggesting the state might build a prison near the company’s theme parks.

DeSantis has taken several controversial steps in his state in part to raise his profile as a potential candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. FiveThirtyEight, which aggregates polls, shows Trump has widened his lead over DeSantis among Republicans, 51% to 24%.

Disney shares were little changed in New York trading at 12:30 p.m.

The company is one of Central Florida’s largest taxpayers, with more than $1.1 billion paid in state and local taxes last year. Disney is also one of the largest employers in the state, with tens of thousands of workers.

The case is Walt Disney Parks and Resorts v. DeSantis, 23-cv-00163, US District Court, Northern District of Florida.

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