TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A day after being sued in federal court by Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday called the lawsuit "political" and without "merit."
DeSantis addressed the issue during a livestreamed press conference as he visited Israel. The lawsuit, filed in Tallahassee, drew national attention amid an escalating feud between DeSantis and the entertainment giant.
"I think it's political," DeSantis said. "I think they filed in Tallahassee for a reason, because they're trying to generate some district-court decision. But we're very confident on the law."
The lawsuit seeks to overturn a new state law — pushed by DeSantis — that revamped a special district Disney had effectively controlled for decades. The former Reedy Creek Improvement District had authority over issues such as land use, fire protection and sewer services that are typically handled by local governments.
The company contends, in part, that DeSantis and other state officials have violated Disney’s First Amendment rights and harmed the business. It alleges retaliatory actions because Disney opposed a 2022 law that restricts instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.
DeSantis said Thursday the special district allowed Disney to be treated differently than Universal, SeaWorld and other theme parks, and now "they’re upset because they’re actually having to live by the same rules as everybody else."
"They don’t want to have to pay the same taxes as everybody else," he added. "And they want to be able to control things without proper oversight, whereas every other Floridian has to have this type of oversight, all Florida businesses. So, it’s a little bit much to be complaining about that."
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In a February special legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that shifted control of the Reedy Creek district away from Disney and allowed the governor to appoint a five-member Board of Supervisors for what was renamed the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.
DeSantis argued the state had the right to change the special district.
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - APRIL 27: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives a speech during the Jerusalem Post conference at the Museum of Tolerance on April 27, 2023 in Jerusalem, Israel. Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida and an anticipated US pres
"We have every right to do that. The Legislature has every right," DeSantis said. "They could abolish every special district if they want to. It can reform every special district if they want to."
After the governor’s appointees to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board were seated, they realized the previous board --- during publicly advertised meetings --- had turned over most of its powers to Disney through agreements.
That has resulted in moves by the new board and the Legislature to nullify the changes and begin state oversight of some park operations.
House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, echoed DeSantis’ assessment of the lawsuit Thursday. He said Disney needed to be"reined in" and the special session legislation was a "good spot" for a company that needs to "learn to live under similar rules to every other business in the state of Florida."
"Unbeknownst to us, they were moving behind the scenes to try to tie up everything in a way that was, in my opinion, in bad faith," Renner said. "And so here we are."
Renner added that he’s confident Disney "had no authority to do what they did."
In the lawsuit, Disney contends it was left with no choice against "a relentless campaign to weaponize government power."
DeSantis said the special district was an election issue last year and that he did better than previous candidates in the Central Florida region.
The Senate on Wednesday night voted 27-13 to approve a bill (SB 1604) intended to nullify the development agreements approved by the previous Reedy Creek board.
A separate bill (SB 1250) expected to appear Friday on the Senate floor would apply Department of Transportation safety standards to monorail lines that connect Walt Disney World resorts and parks. The plan would require audits, compliance reports conducted every three years and an annual onsite evaluation.
Currently, Disney and other large theme parks conduct their own safety inspections because of a carve-out from oversight by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The department inspects amusement-park rides except at facilities or parks that have more than 1,000 employees and full-time inspectors on staff.