Disney vs. DeSantis – Who Will Come Out on Top in 2024?

in Walt Disney World

Mickey Mouse and Ron DeSantis inside of Disney World.

Credit: Inside The Magic

2023 was the year the world saw Florida Governor Ron DeSantis go up against Walt Disney World Resort legally and politically. With lawsuits left and right and updates released almost weekly, the record needs to be set straight – who will come out on top in 2024, Disney World or Ron DeSantis? Let’s find out.

An image to the left of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis with a photo to the right of the Magic Kingdom castle with a vs. graphic in the middle.
Credit: Edited by Inside The Magic

When Did the Disney vs. Desantis Legal and Political Battle First Start?

Things weren’t always a constant back and forth between arguably the biggest theme park in the world and one of the most polarizing political figures since Donald Trump. There was a time of peace between these two. But what started this heated debate can be traced back to when Disney World took a political stance that put them in hot waters for most folks who aren’t big-time fans of the House of Mouse.

Disney has occasionally found itself amid public discourse over various social and political issues as a company. However, the company often emphasizes its commitment to remaining neutral and refraining from taking explicit political stances. This, however, changed when Disney took a stance against the prolific and wrongly named “Don’t Say Gay Bill.”

In 2022, Ron DeSantis signed HB 1557, famously known as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” to many. The Parental Rights in Education Act in Florida prohibits instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in public school districts from kindergarten through 3rd grade. The act also bans instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in a way that is not “age appropriate or developmentally.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis laughing with the Cinderella Castle in the background as the sun sets inside of the Magic Kingdom Disney World Park.
Credit: Inside The Magic

The Famous, “Don’t Say Gay” Bill

On March 7, 2022, nearly two years ago, an internal communication from Disney C.E.O. Bob Chapek affirmed its commitment to supporting its L.G.B.T. employees. However, Chapek clarified that Disney would not publicly endorse or oppose the bill. In his statement, Chapek emphasized the belief that Disney’s most substantial influence lies in fostering a more inclusive world through the compelling content it creates. The company focuses on the impact of its inspiring and diverse productions as a means of contributing to a broader culture of inclusivity.

But DeSantis and many others felt that Disney did make a stance on this new bill, which set things off between the Florida Governor and the House of Mouse.

Disney faced criticism for its financial contributions to the bill’s sponsors, prompting disapproval from various organizations and individuals associated with the company.

Among the earliest dissenting voices was Dana Terrace, creator of the Disney Channel series The Owl House, who openly criticized Disney’s decision. Subsequent critics included Benjamin Siemon, a writer for DuckTales; Abigail Disney (Walt Disney’s grandniece); Drew Z. Greenberg, producer of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; Bill Motz, creator of The Ghost and Molly McGee, and Lilan Bowden, star of Andi Mack. Responding to the bill’s passage and Disney’s stance, Terrace organized a live charity stream on March 13, 2022, raising $70,000 for the Zebra Coalition, a support organization for the L.G.B.T. community.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis looking sad in front of the Cinderella Castle at Disney World.
Credit: Inside The Magic

Disney Takes a Stand? DeSantis Furious!

The criticism from within the Disney community underscores the complex reactions to the company’s involvement in the political landscape.

Several of Disney’s subsidiaries have taken a stand against the bill and the company’s position. A statement credited to “the LGBTQIA+ employees of Pixar and their allies” expressed discontent, noting that narratives with diverse characters undergo significant alterations during Disney’s corporate reviews. The statement suggested that these stories are reduced to fragments once prosperous and varied. Criticism was directed at Chapek’s assertion that Disney’s most significant impact lies in its inclusive content, with the revelation that instances of overtly gay affection are consistently edited out, despite objections from both creative teams and Pixar’s executive leadership.

Marvel Studios also joined in denouncing any legislation that infringes on the fundamental human rights of the LGBTQIA+ community. This collective dissent from within Disney’s creative teams and subsidiaries reflects a broader internal discord regarding the company’s approach to issues affecting the LGBTQIA+ community.

Ron DeSantis wearing sunglasses with Captain Mickey
Credit: Disney/ Inside the Magic

In response to Disney’s position, numerous employees planned digital walkouts lasting 15 minutes beginning on March 16, culminating in a day-long walkout on March 22. An open letter criticized Disney’s response, asserting that it “utterly failed to match the magnitude of the threat to LGBTQIA+ safety represented by [the bill].”

The company was also faulted for not fully integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion as core values despite claiming to do so. Organizers established a website outlining “demands for [Disney] to regain the trust of the LGBTQIA+ community and employees.” This includes discontinuing donations to politicians involved in creating and passing the bill and establishing an in-house brand focusing on LGBTQ+ creators and underrepresented voices, akin to The Onyx Collective for creators of color.

Conversely, Laura Ingraham and Sean Feucht criticized Disney for its changed stance, asserting that the company’s actions “sexualized” children. Feucht held rallies outside Walt Disney Studios in Burbank and Disneyland in Anaheim. Christopher Rufo and other conservatives declared a “moral war against Disney,” targeting the company’s public reputation.

The Daily Wire announced a $100 million investment over three years to create a streaming platform as an alternative for viewers of Disney programs. Some observers noted parallels between current criticism and anti-Disney protests by religious leaders in the late 1990s. The multifaceted response underscores the polarized reactions to Disney’s evolving stance on the bill.

A glum-looking Ron DeSantis in front of Mickey Mouse moving suitcases at Disney World
Credit: Inside the Magic

Reedy Creek Becomes the CFTOD

Aside from all the drama surrounding the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill in Central Florida, what about those lawsuits filed last year?

Following Disney’s declaration of opposition to the law, Florida Governor DeSantis and state lawmakers threatened to repeal the 1967 Reedy Creek Improvement Act. This act established the Reedy Creek Improvement District, granting it autonomous governmental authority akin to a county government without imposing a financial burden on Florida taxpayers.

The potential repeal of this act poses significant consequences, as it would lead to the dissolution of the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Consequently, the infrastructure and municipal services near Walt Disney World would be absorbed by neighboring counties, along with the estimated $1 billion in debt associated with the district. The political maneuvering underscores the complex interplay between Disney’s corporate stance and the broader political landscape in Florida.

Eventually, the Reedy District was dismantled and taken over by DeSantis and his people, thus launching the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD).

Florida Governor waving inside of a frame with the Cinderella Castle and the WDW and Mickey Mouse statue to the right.
Credit: Edited by Inside The Magic

The Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) is now known as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD). The CFTOD is a special taxing district and governing jurisdiction for Walt Disney World Resort. It covers 39.06 square miles in Orange and Osceola counties in Florida.

The existing district came into existence on February 27, 2023, following the passage of House Bill 9B by the Florida Legislature. This new legislation was enacted to supersede the Reedy Creek Improvement Act, initially passed in 1967 at the request of Walt Disney and his eponymous media company during the developmental phases of Walt Disney World. Replacing the longstanding Reedy Creek Improvement Act marks a pivotal shift in the regulatory framework surrounding the Walt Disney World area.

But Disney would not sit idly by as Ron DeSantis had awakened a sleeping giant.

Ron DeSantis at Disney World with Minnie, Mickey, and Goofy
Credit: PBS, Disney, edited by Inside the Magic

Disney World Sues Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

On April 26, 2023, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts filed a lawsuit against Governor Ron DeSantis, Meredith Ivey (acting secretary of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity), and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board. The lawsuit accuses Governor DeSantis of violating Disney’s First Amendment rights by allegedly leveraging political power for “government retaliation.”

The legal document contends that DeSantis’ actions jeopardize Disney’s economic prospects in the region and violate its constitutional rights. Emphasizing its significant contributions to the state of Florida, Disney, as one of the largest employers in the state, has provided substantial tax revenue (amounting to $1.1 billion in state and local taxes) and plays a crucial role in driving tourism.

The lawsuit was presented by Daniel Petrocelli, an attorney based in Los Angeles who previously represented former president Donald Trump in a 2016 class action lawsuit against the now-defunct Trump University. The case was assigned to Chief Judge Mark E. Walker of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida, appointed by former president Barack Obama, who was notable for a previous First Amendment victory in a 2022 case involving six University of Florida professors.

Florida Governor with smoke blowing out of his ears, in front of Cinderella Castle
Credit: Inside the Magic

The legal dispute titled Disney v. DeSantis is a lawsuit initiated by The Walt Disney Company’s Parks, Experiences, and Products division against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in 2023. The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

The plaintiff alleges that Governor DeSantis, Meredith Ivey, the acting secretary of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board infringed upon the company’s First Amendment rights. The claim asserts that government power was wielded to engage in political retaliation against Disney, marking a contentious legal battle at the intersection of corporate interests and government actions.

Another lawsuit was also filed by Disney, this time against the CFTOD. After months of back-and-forth between the CFTOD and Disney, the House of Mouse finally pulled the trigger recently and filed a lawsuit against the former Reedy Creek.

Sign for the Reedy Creek Improvement District
Credit: Asher Heimermann

Disney World Goes After Its Own Governing District

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts filed a lawsuit on a Friday evening, alleging that the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD) failed to adhere to Florida law and the state’s constitution regarding the preservation and turnover of public records.

In response, the entertainment company has requested an Orange County circuit court judge to promptly schedule a hearing to declare that CFTOD is unlawfully withholding public records. Disney seeks an order from the court directing the agency to furnish all outstanding records requested by Disney promptly. The legal move reflects Disney’s pursuit of transparency and compliance with the relevant laws governing access to public records.

So, after all of this information given to you summarizing the legal and political turmoil between DeSantis and Disney World – what will happen in 2024? Who will come out on top?

An image to the left of Florida Governor with a photo to the right of the Magic Kingdom castle with a vs. graphic in the middle.
Credit: Edited by Inside The Magic

2024 – Who Will Come Out on Top?

The most recent CFTOD board meeting ended in chaos. Multiple board members walked out, while one particular board member was missing due to a sexual scandal involving their husband, which made big headlines last month.

Governor DeSantis appears determined to challenge Disney in the courtroom and through legal maneuvers to maintain complete control of the district. Despite introducing a new bill proposing to strip him of this district, DeSantis is resolute in asserting control and countering Disney’s legal actions. The ongoing legal battle reflects a contentious struggle for authority over the district and underscores the high-stakes nature of the conflict between the state government and the entertainment giant. The following meeting was then canceled.

A December 12 court hearing occurred in which a Federal Judge weighed in on the most recent Disney vs. DeSantis legal fight. In a significant legal development, U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor heard arguments on Tuesday where Walt Disney Parks and Resorts sought to sustain a lawsuit. The lawsuit alleges that the state retaliated unconstitutional against Disney due to the entertainment company’s opposition to a controversial education law.

The motions to dismiss the lawsuit, brought forth by Governor Ron DeSantis’ administration and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, were under consideration during the hearing. The lawsuit originated from restructuring a special taxing district, which had long granted Disney self-governing authority over its theme parks and the surrounding areas. The outcome of this legal proceeding will undoubtedly have significant implications for the ongoing dispute between Disney and the state of Florida.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis with Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom Cinderella Castle in the background as the sun sets.
Credit: Edited by Inside The Magic

That was the most recent news from this DeSantis and Disney World debacle. It would appear that Disney World will get its chance to send Ron DeSantis to court to sort out this entire mess and come to a final resolution. With the 2024 Presidential Elections in 10 months, this legal feud with Disney is lingering over DeSantis’ head, giving his constituents a bad name, with many Republicans siding with Disney, including former President Donald Trump.

In the end, it will most likely have to be the court of law that will decide who will come out on top from this legal and political war between a governor and a theme park run by a mouse. As always, there’s also the public opinion.

What are your thoughts on this entire Disney vs. DeSantis feud? Who will come out on top? 

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