The standoff, which could have major political and economic consequences, began in early 2022 when Disney leaders criticized a controversial education bill advanced by DeSantis and other Florida Republicans. Disney’s resorts in Florida are some of the state’s prime attractions, but DeSantis expressed outrage that the company dare criticize the education bill, and he began attacking the company, saying it had received preferential treatment for too long.
DeSantis, whom many consider a top presidential contender, has repeatedly turned to the state’s Republican-controlled legislature to help him rein in Disney. The first effort came in a special session in April 2022, when lawmakers dissolved the special taxing district created in 1967 to help the company develop and control its vast property near Orlando.
But that move quickly caused concerns about what would happen with Disney’s tax and debt burden. Local government officials called it “a $1 billion debt bomb” and said they could have been forced to raise taxes on property owners to pay for what Disney’s district used to fund, such as roads and other services.
DeSantis ordered another special session in February to address that issue by keeping the tax district, but replacing the board selected by Disney — called the Reedy Creek Improvement District — with a new panel. DeSantis chose the five new board members and called the agency the Central Florida Tourism Oversight Board. When the new board held its first meeting in March, members said they discovered that the outgoing Disney board had handed over most of their power to Disney. That’s what they voted to overturn on Wednesday.
Local business owners who run cafes and restaurants on Disney’s property, and nearby residents pleaded with the new board Wednesday to end the feud. They said they can’t afford to pay higher taxes that the board said will be necessary to pay legal fees, and that ideas floated by the governor — such as new toll roads within Disney’s property — would be a burden on their employees.
Mark Gibson, who owns three businesses at Disney, said he’s voted for DeSantis twice but finds the battle with Disney worrisome.
“This dispute has continued for more than a year. There’s already been a lot of negative publicity that we have to deal with, with guests and with our customers,” Gibson said. “Ultimately, we’re concerned about the repercussions for our restaurants and our employees.”
Debra McDonald said she and her family have lived at Celebration, a town built by Disney within the Reedy Creek district, for more 26 years. The company provides utilities, including electricity, to its more than 11,000 residents.
“People are afraid of losing their homes,” McDonald said. “Many people in our community are afraid. Uncertainty, fear, and controversy are not good.”
The standoff “has hurt us deeply,” she said. “It’s not just between the governor and Disney. It’s affecting everyone around you.”
Disney’s Magic Kingdom location near Orlando is considered the busiest theme park in the world, drawing nearly 13 million visitors in 2021. Its Animal Kingdom resort is also a top draw, attracting more than 7 million people that year, according to AECOM and the Themed Entertainment Association.
In its legal complaint, Disney accused DeSantis of punishing it for protected speech, threatening its business operations, jeopardizing its economic future in the region and violating its constitutional rights.
“Having exhausted efforts to seek a resolution,” the complaint said, “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.”
A DeSantis spokeswoman called Disney’s lawsuit “another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of the Florida voters” and circumvent state law.
“We are unaware of any legal right that a company has to operate its own government or maintain special privileges not held by other businesses in the state,” said Taryn Fenske, communications director for the governor’s office.
What started with criticism over a controversial education bill has turned into a high profile tug-of-war between two of the state’s most powerful entities: Disney, which employs more than 75,000 people, and DeSantis, who is expected to announce his bid for the GOP presidential nomination in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, business goes on as usual at the Magic Kingdom.
Matt Roseboom, the editor and publisher of Attractions Magazine, which covers Disney and other theme parks, said the Disney-DeSantis feud hasn’t impacted visitors to the Florida park. “The average guest that’s coming to Disney probably has heard something about the feud, but it’s really not affecting anything.”
The new board said it may have to raise taxes on Disney to pay for attorneys to fight the company in court. DeSantis has floated the idea of building another theme park on Disney property, or even a state prison.
But the notion seems far-fetched, Roseboom said.
“I think everybody’s pretty confident that Disney is not going to have to have a prison in the Magic Kingdom,” he said. “I think people are just more making a joke out of it right now.”
International researcher Cate Brown contributed to this report.