In their latest filing in their case against Governor Ron DeSantis and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, Disney compares the District to the new one established by Orange County for Universal Orlando Resort.
Disney and Universal Taxing Districts
In October, Orange County, Florida approved the creation of a special taxing district for Universal Orlando Resort that will help fund the Sunshine Corridor and SunRail station located near their new theme park, Epic Universe. The Shingle Creek Transit & Utility Community Development District is 719 acres, which mostly includes Epic Universe. 13 acres are for the proposed train station along Destination Parkway.
Disney writes the following in their new filing:
In repeated public comments, the Governor declared that the laws do not injure Disney because they simply make the company subject to the same regulatory structure applicable to all other Florida businesses, thereby creating a “level playing field.” That contention is an outright falsehood. In fact, a special district was established just this month to regulate the land encompassing Universal’s new Epic Universe theme park in Orange County—with its inaugural board of supervisors comprising only Universal employees. See Ariel Zilber, Universal Studios Gets Special Tax District After DeSantis Took It Away From Disney, N.Y. POST (Oct. 13, 2023, 2:59 P.M.), https://nypost.com/2023/10/13/universal-studios-gets-special-tax-district-after-desantis-stripped-disney/.
Further, most businesses and other property owners in Florida are regulated by elected, politically-accountable municipal bodies. Few Florida businesses are subject, as Disney now is, to governance by a special district with a Governor-controlled board that closely regulates the use of private property with no accountability to local property owners and taxpayers. In any event, what matters with respect to the pending motion to dismiss is that the challenged laws indisputably eliminate Disney’s rights and impose new burdens, thereby creating an injury-in-fact.
After The Walt Disney Company ceased political donations to sponsors of Florida’s controversial Parental Rights in Education bill and spoke out against the bill, Governor DeSantis began his campaign against the company, eventually focusing on taking over the Reedy Creek Improvement District. He said when he signed the bill to take over the District that the “corporate kingdom will come to an end.”
The District’s new board is appointed only by Governor DeSantis. Members must be Florida residents who cannot have worked in the theme park industry within three years.
Universal, on the other hand, was found to have donated to many of the same politicians, but never faced the same backlash and never said anything against the bill. DeSantis has not spoken out against Universal’s new special taxing district, despite them being similar corporations with similar purposes.
Disney vs. DeSantis & CFTOD
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Walt Disney Company initially clashed over the corporation’s opposition to a much-debated and controversial Florida law regarding classroom instruction and discussion on sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools, alongside various other recent state laws and proposals in a similar vein.
Now-former CEO Bob Chapek initially remained silent and passive on the issue — until massive internal criticisms from Cast Members, the LGBTQ+ community, and controversy over Disney making hefty political contributions to campaigns and individuals allegedly against their own stated human principles came into focus.
After Chapek denounced the law, Governor DeSantis moved forward with various verbal and legal assaults on Disney, including the attempted dissolution of the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Ultimately, the District was renamed and DeSantis appointed his own Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board of Supervisors.
DeSantis is attacking what he calls “woke politics” allegedly invading the state — frequently stating his intention to put the people of Florida first through his actions and via the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District:
Disney has gotten away with special deals from the state of Florida for way too long. It took a look under the hood to see what Disney has become to truly understand their inappropriate influence.
After the CFTOD Board attempted to declare Disney’s final agreements with RCID null and void, Disney filed a federal lawsuit against the Board and DeSantis, calling their actions a violation of their constitutional rights.
In the lawsuit, Disney cites “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 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 Board then filed a state lawsuit against Disney and Disney is now countersuing on the state level, arguing that because RCID was never actually dissolved, the CFOTD is essentially the same entity and is going back on its word.