The Walt Disney Company is counting on something very important to its cause not happening in Florida but has promised that if it does, harsh punishments will be handed down.
Disney’s Long Tenure in Florida
In the early 1960s, when Walt Disney was scouting out various locations and tracts of land on which to plant his second theme park resort, Florida was ideal, though that wasn’t immediately apparent to those involved in the decision.
In the mind of the great visionary Walt Disney, the Sunshine State had everything to offer future guests of a theme park resort complex that Walt had already dreamed up, planned out, constructed, and opened to visitors in his mind’s eye. And Central Florida, in particular, would serve as the proverbial “X marks the spot” on the map of Florida, especially because of what Walt deemed excellent road access in the area.
The Florida spot was perfect as it offered sunshine nearly 365 days a year, and the land on which Walt had his sights set was incredibly inexpensive–largely due to the fact that it was covered in layers of swampland and marshes. But Walt already had a plan for dealing with that as well, and when Walt Disney began buying up tracts of land in Central Florida, no one knew it was Disney, and since the land was covered in swamps, it was cheap to buy–that is until an astute journalist with the Orlando Sentinel was able to confirm that the entity buying up all the alligator-infested land near Orlando was none other than Walter Elias Disney.
By 1965, Disney had purchased more than 27,000 acres of land–almost 43 square miles–for $5 million, which, when adjusted for inflation, would be closer to $43 million today. Nearly immediately, Walt and his brother Roy O. Disney set about making sure the company’s plans would be protected, thanks to a self-governing district over the Disney-owned property, called the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which was finally incepted in 1967.
Today, the sprawling Walt Disney World Resort complex encompasses some 47 square miles in Orange and Osceola counties and includes four unique four theme parks–Magic Kingdom Park, EPCOT, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, as well as two themed water parks, 31 hotels with nearly 30,000 guest rooms in total, the 220-acre ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, and the ever-expanding Disney Springs shopping, dining, and entertainment district.
Each of the themed locations on Disney’s property in Central Florida is linked to the others through a series of roads, lakes, the Disney World Monorail system, and the Skyliner aerial gondola system, and much of the success of the Central Florida Disney resort is due in part to the efforts by the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
However, a growing discord between Disney and the State of Florida that began in 2022 ultimately led to the district’s dissolution and a major federal lawsuit.
Education Legislation Dispute Gives Reedy Creek the Boot
In March 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the Parental Rights in Education bill, a piece of legislation aimed at keeping teachers of Kindergarten through third grade from using instruction time to discuss gender identity and sexual orientation. But some at The Walt Disney Company didn’t agree with such legislation and convinced then-CEO Bob Chapek to issue a statement against it on behalf of the company.
Gov. DeSantis didn’t appreciate Chapek’s candor, and over the next several months, a fiery feud exploded between the two entities, finally leading DeSantis to step in and take over Disney’s Reedy Creek District, replacing its board members and changing its name to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight Committee.
Skip ahead a few more months, and Disney filed suit against the State of Florida for violation of the company’s right to free speech. DeSantis responded with a countersuit. And the controversy has only continued to brew from there.
Disney’s Frustrations Become Apparent at the Federal Level
Tensions over Florida’s suit against Disney remain high, and on Monday, The Walt Disney Company made it clear that if Florida’s governor wins the federal lawsuit in which Disney alleges the company’s free speech rights were violated by Gov. DeSantis, Disney won’t be the only ones who are punished because of a “disfavored viewpoint.”
In court documents on Monday, Disney asked a judge to reject Gov. DeSantis’s motion to dismiss Disney’s case against Florida’s government, pointing out that First Amendment rights remain in place, even when they are in direct contrast to governmental entities.
In documents associated with Disney’s federal lawsuit against DeSantis and the State of Florida, Disney says that the governor took over its Reedy Creek District in retaliation for the company’s stance against the Parental Rights in Education law. Disney also points out that the governor’s actions were outside the company’s protected rights, as outlined by the Constitution.
“If the line is not drawn here, there is no line at all,” Disney said in court documents on Monday. “The retaliation against Disney for crossing the Governor’s ‘line’ was swift and severe: for the explicitly stated purpose of punishing Disney for its comments, the State immediately stripped Disney of its voting rights in the governing body that oversees Disney’s use of its own private property.”
But DeSantis says Disney’s suit has no merit, as do his appointees on the Central Florida Tourism Oversight Committee. He also suggests that the government in Florida is immune from such liability.