Disney sues Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over loss of special district

Disney alleges that DeSantis led a 'targeted campaign of government retaliation' against the company that violates its constitutional rights

Disney is suing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis after the state revoked its self-governing authority in a highly publicized feud over the company's political activities.

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S., Inc., filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida on Wednesday, alleging DeSantis orchestrated a "targeted campaign of government retaliation" against the company that violates Disney's free speech rights. The lawsuit came after a board appointed by DeSantis to govern the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District — which houses the Walt Disney World resort — voted to nullify two development contracts Disney signed in February. 

Disney, one of Florida's largest employers, said the nullified contracts "laid the foundation for billions of Disney's investment dollars and thousands of jobs." 

"This government action was patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional," the complaint states. "But the Governor and his allies have made clear they do not care and will not stop."

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced legislative action to nullify the agreement between the Reedy Creek Improvement District and Walt Disney World, which was designed to permit Disney to retain control of its theme park and surrounding property. Disn (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images / Getty Images)

Taryn Fenske, the communications director for DeSantis, said, "We are unaware of any legal right that a company has to operate its own government or maintain special privileges not held by other businesses in the state." 

"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," said Fenske. 

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Disney World's castle in Magic Kingdom

The previous board that oversaw aspects of Disney World approved a series of agreements that gave the corporate giant a wide range of control. (Getty Images for Disney Dreamers Academy)

The lawsuit now involves courts in a battle between DeSantis and Disney that began when the House of Mouse campaigned to overturn Florida's Parental Rights in Education law, which detractors misleadingly labeled the "Don't Say Gay" bill. DeSantis, widely expected to run for president in 2024, responded by pushing the Florida legislature to strip Disney's self-governing authority and create a new board, full of his appointees, which now has control over the theme park's development. 

However, before the new board took control, Disney pushed through changes to the special tax district agreement that limited the board's action for decades.

The DeSantis board on Wednesday said Disney’s move to retain control over their property was effectively unlawful and performed without proper public notice.

"Disney picked the fight with this board. We were not looking out for a fight," said Martin Garcia, chair of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, adding "bottom line, what our lawyers have told us, is factually and legally what they created is an absolute legal mess. It will not work."

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Georgia stage

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pitched further actions the state could take against Disney, including raising taxes in the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, or even building a prison next to Walt Disney World. (AP Photo/John Bazemore / AP Newsroom)

Disney is asking the court to declare the legislature's actions "unlawful and unenforceable." The company points to statements DeSantis made in April suggesting that Florida should tax Disney's hotels, put "tolls on the roads," and even build a "state prison" next to Walt Disney World as evidence of targeted retaliation. 

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"Disney regrets that it has come to this. But having exhausted efforts to seek a resolution, the Company is left with no choice but to file this lawsuit to protect its cast members, guests, and local development partners from a relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain State officials," the company said in its complaint. 

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FOX Business' Ken Martin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.