DeSantis Board is suing Disney in latest Florida tug-of-war


ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Days after Disney sued the Florida governor in federal court for describing himself as retaliation for rejecting the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, the Disney World board of directors passed Gov. Ron DeSantis appointees — filed a lawsuit against the entertainment giant on Monday.

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District is suing Disney in state court in Orlando, and board members voted to defend themselves 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 resort district, previously controlled by Disney for 55 years. The board’s lawsuit seeks to maintain its oversight of planning and construction in the district that governs Disney World’s 25,000 acres, after the previous Disney-controlled board delegated those powers to the company before the DeSantis-appointed directors began held their first meeting this year.

The DeSantis board’s lawsuit was filed in Orange County Monday afternoon, alleging the agreements with Disney “smack of a backroom deal.” The former board members did not properly announce the agreements, did not have the authority to enter into them, unlawfully delegated governmental authority to a private entity, and the lawsuit alleges that the agreements are unenforceable under Florida law.

“We will seek justice in our own backyard,” Central Florida Tourism Oversight District chairman Martin Garcia said at Monday morning’s special session that approved the lawsuit.

An email was sent to Disney officials on Monday morning asking for comment.

Disney filed its lawsuit last week after the DeSantis-appointed board of directors voted to quash a deal that gave the company authority over design and construction decisions at its sprawling Orlando-area properties.

Disney’s lawsuit was that latest Tug-of-war in a more than year-long feud between Disney and DeSantis that has drawn criticism for the governor he is preparing to take off an expected presidential bid in the coming months.

DeSantis, who has portrayed himself as a Republican arsonist capable of deftly executing his conservative agenda without drama, has plunged headlong into the fray with the company beloved and big tourism booster, while business leaders and White House rivals dismissed his stance as rejection the principles of conservatism for small governments.

The fight began after Disney’s face last year significant pressurehas publicly opposed a state law banning classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades, a political critique calling it “don’t say gay.”

As punishment, DeSantis took over Disney World’s self-governing district through legislation passed by the Florida legislature, appointing a new board of directors to oversee municipal services for the sprawling theme parks and hotels. But before the new board took office, the company sat through 11th hour agreements that stripped the new bosses of much of their authority.

In response, DeSantis and Florida lawmakers vowed to pass legislation that would rescind the agreements and end an exemption for Disney parks when it comes to driver inspections by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The Department of Agriculture is responsible for inspecting rides in Florida, but an exception has been made for the state’s largest theme park operators, such as Disney and Universal Destinations & Experiences, who conduct their own safety inspections. Under the proposal, the exemption for travel in special government areas, which basically only target Disney World, would end.

“No company is above the law and the people of this state,” DeSantis said Monday at a news conference in Titusville on 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 told the state at the time that it planned to build a futuristic city that would include a mass transit system and urban design innovations, requiring the company to have autonomy in building and deciding how to use the land. The futuristic city never materialized and instead turned into a second theme park, which opened in 1982.

Before and after Monday’s vote to approve the lawsuit against Disney in state court, current board members defended their work, claiming they were trying to promote better governance and take the district into the 21st century.

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

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

“Disney is suing me? You must be joking,’ said Peri. “I loved Disney World. My kids enjoyed it. The magic kingdom is wonderful. I hope the actions we are taking are better for everyone, including Disney.”

Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at @MikeSchneiderAP.

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