DeSantis says he's 'moved on' from Disney district fight as the company doubles down

The Walt Disney Co. is seeking damages in its ongoing fight with the Ron DeSantis-controlled Central Florida district that encompasses Walt Disney World, even as the Republican governor tries to publicly move on from the battle that had been a signature issue in his 2024 presidential campaign.

Disney on Thursday filed counterclaims in Florida court against DeSantis’ hand-selected board that governs the area formerly known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, alleging breach of contract and violation of the free speech clause in the state’s constitution.

In addition to unspecified damages, the Burbank entertainment giant is seeking injunctive relief as it battles for control of the body that had essentially functioned as Disney’s own municipal government.

Representatives of the district and Disney did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The district, created by Florida lawmakers in 1967, gave Disney unusual abilities to develop the former swamplands as one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations by issuing bonds and providing emergency services.

DeSantis and allies moved to strip Disney of its special privileges after the company came out against the state’s Parental Rights in Education Act, decried by opponents as “Don’t Say Gay.”

Reedy Creek’s board was previously elected by the district’s landowners, which are mostly affiliated with Disney. After DeSantis took it over, Reedy Creek was renamed the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

Disney in April sued DeSantis and other Florida officials in federal court for allegedly violating its First Amendment rights, accusing the governor of embarking on “a targeted campaign of government retaliation” in response to its opposition of the Florida education law, which restricts classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for students in kindergarten through third grade.

DeSantis’ office swiped back.

“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,” the governor’s spokesperson, Taryn Fenske, said in a statement at the time.

DeSantis’ board later sued Disney in Florida court in May, seeking to void contracts that the outgoing supervisors signed, which appeared to preemptively undercut the incoming appointees’ power.

Disney in July filed a motion in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit Court for Orange County to toss the suit, saying it was “moot” because the state legislature had already declared the development deals void, but the judge denied Disney’s request.

While the cases continue, DeSantis, who is lagging former President Trump in the polling for the 2024 Republican nomination, has sought to put the matter behind him. DeSantis told CNBC this week that he and his team have “basically moved on” from the Disney dispute and urged the company to drop its federal suit.

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