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The DeSantis board approves the charges against Disney in the latest tug-of-war


ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Days after Disney filed a lawsuit Florida governor in federal court over what it described as retaliation for opposing the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, Disney World’s board of directors – made up of governor Ron DeSantis appointees – has filed a lawsuit against the entertainment giant on Monday.

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District sued Disney in state court in Orlando and voted to defend itself in federal court in Tallahassee, where the entertainment company filed its lawsuit Wednesday.

The Disney lawsuit against the governor, the board and its five members is asking a judge to annul the governor’s takeover of the theme park district previously controlled by Disney for 55 years. The board of trustees lawsuit seeks to preserve oversight of design and construction in the district that manages Disney World’s 25,000 acres after the previous Disney-controlled board transferred those powers to the company before the DeSantis appointed board members held their first meeting earlier this year .

The DeSantis board’s lawsuit was filed Monday afternoon in Orange County, alleging that the agreements with Disney “reek of a backroom.” According to the lawsuit, the previous board members failed to properly notify the agreements, were not authorized to make them, unlawfully delegated government powers to a private entity, and the agreements are not enforceable under Florida.

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

An email requesting comment was sent to Disney officials Monday morning.

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

Disney’s lawsuit was the last tug-of-war in a year-plus feud between Disney and DeSantis that has showered the governor with criticism as he prepares for launch an expected presidential bid in the coming months.

DeSantis, who has portrayed himself as a Republican arsonist capable of executing his conservative agenda with dexterity and drama, has plunged headlong into the fray with the beloved company and tourism’s main driver, while corporate executives and rivals of the White House his position as a rejection of small government principles of conservatism.

The fight started last year after Disney, under a lot of pressurepublicly opposed a state law banning classroom classes on sexual orientation and gender identity in the first grades, a policy critic calling “Don’t Say Gay.”

As punishment, DeSantis took over Disney World’s self-governing district and appointed a new board of supervisors that would oversee municipal services at the sprawling theme parks. But before the new board took office, the company pushed through eleven hours of agreements that stripped the new supervisors of much of their authority.

In response, DeSantis and Florida lawmakers pledged to pass legislation that would repeal the agreements and end an exemption for Disney parks when it comes to ride inspections by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The Bureau of Agriculture is responsible for inspecting amusement 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 would end for rides in special government districts, which are essentially focused only on Disney World.

“No company is above the law and the people of this state,” DeSantis said Monday at a news conference in Titusville, along Florida’s Space Coast.

The creation of the self-governing district by the Florida Legislature was instrumental in Disney’s decision to build near Orlando in the 1960s. The company had told the state at the time that it planned to build a futuristic city with a transit system and city planning innovations, so the company needed autonomy in building and deciding how to use the land. The futuristic city was never realized and instead turned into a second theme park that opened in 1982.

The current board members, before and after Monday’s vote approving the state’s case against Disney, defended their work, claiming they were trying to promote better governance and bring the district into the 21st century.

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

Peri, who used to run 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,’ Peri said. “I love Disney World. My kids enjoyed it. The magic kingdom is great. I hope the actions we take will be better for everyone, including Disney.”


Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at @MikeSchneiderAP.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.