Why is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis feuding with Disney?

The Republican leader continues his combative stance against company that criticised an anti-LGBTQ law in Florida.

Ron DeSantis raises both hands at a podium labeled "the Florida blueprint"
Governor Ron DeSantis, a likely Republican contender in the 2024 presidential race, has described his policies in Florida as a blueprint for the rest of the US [File: Alyssa Pointer/Reuters]

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been embroiled in a bitter tussle with Walt Disney Co that began last year when the media company criticised a state bill on sexual identity and has spread to oversight of municipal services at its parks.

DeSantis will announce his presidential run on Wednesday during a Twitter Spaces discussion with billionaire Elon Musk.

Here’s what you need to know about the governor’s fight with Disney.

How did this situation start?

Last year, then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek criticised a legislative effort led by DeSantis in Florida to limit classroom discussion of sexuality and gender issues for younger students, a bill that critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” measure.

DeSantis responded by urging the legislature to abolish a special district that gave Disney virtual autonomy over the development of its theme parks in central Florida.

What was that special taxing district and why was it set up?

The Florida Legislature created the Reedy Creek Improvement District in 1967 to promote the development of Walt Disney World on a 100sq km (38.5sq miles) of land. Disney paid taxes to that district, which provided municipal services and exempted it from some regulations.

What was the legislation Florida signed?

In April 2022, DeSantis called on the Republican-controlled legislature to abolish the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which it did in a special session. Florida legislators revisited the issue in February 2023, stripping Disney of its special self-governing status and giving DeSantis the authority to appoint a new tourist board with oversight of the area.

How did Disney respond?

Prior to the takeover by DeSantis appointees, in February 2023, Disney pushed through changes to the special tax district agreement that limit the board’s action for decades. DeSantis promised to nullify those efforts.

In April, the company sued DeSantis, asking a federal court to overturn state efforts to exert greater control over the Walt Disney World theme parks, accusing DeSantis of a “campaign to weaponize government power”.

What did DeSantis say he would do?

DeSantis, in mid-April, suggested the newly formed tourism board could step up inspections of Disney’s rides, add additional toll roads, or other development of the area, even floating the idea of putting a state prison in the region. Disney CEO Bob Iger has called the governor’s move “anti-business” and “anti-Florida”.

DeSantis also brushed off the legal action taken by Disney. The district board appointed by him also countersued the company earlier this month.

What did Disney do in its lawsuit?

Disney sued DeSantis and members of his recently appointed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board in a federal court in Tallahassee, saying the state’s actions violated Disney’s contract rights and arguing DeSantis’s efforts represent an attempt to curb the company’s First Amendment rights. The company is asking the court to declare Florida’s legislative action unlawful.

What recent actions did Disney take?

Disney scrapped plans to build a nearly $1bn corporate campus in central Florida that would have housed 2,000 employees, Reuters reported on May 18, against the backdrop of its continuing legal battle with DeSantis.

How do voters feel about the DeSantis vs Disney battle?

Forty-four percent of Republican respondents in an April Reuters/Ipsos poll said they had a more favourable view of DeSantis because of the fight with Disney. However, 73 percent of respondents – including 82 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans – said they were less likely to support a political candidate who backs laws designed to punish a company for its political or cultural stances.

Source: Reuters