Walt Disney World Vs. Ron DeSantis: A Timeline Of The Theme Park's Battle With Florida

 Mickey Mouse at magic Kingdom
Mickey Mouse at magic Kingdom

When Walt Disney chose Central Florida as the home for his Project X, i.e. what would come to be known as Walt Disney World, it was a major win for the state. Florida was very happy to welcome Disney to the Sunshine State, knowing that the tourists visiting the “East Coast Disneyland” would be a boon for the state’s economy. In the decades since, the state and the House of Mouse have worked well together and relied on each other, as Disney World has expanded well beyond its original plans. But for a little over a year, that’s all seemingly coming apart. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis decided that Disney has too much power and has instituted a major change in the relationship between the state and the company.

Back in the 1960s, Florida voted to create the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which gave Walt Disney World a significant amount of autonomy, but now that autonomy will be up to a court to decide. If you’re just catching up, here’s a complete timeline of just what is going on in the battle between Florida and Disney World.

The Parental Rights In Education Act Is Introduced - February 2022

In early 2022, the Florida legislature introduced the Parental Rights in Education Act. The new law was designed to limit what teachers could teach in public schools regarding a variety of topics, from sexual orientation to gender identity. Critics dubbed the law “Don’t Say Gay,” as it effectively muzzled teachers’ ability to even acknowledge the existence of such topics in the classroom.

As the largest single-site employer in the state of Florida, many who were against the bill hoped that The Walt Disney Company would exert its considerable sway on public opinion, as well as on the politicians whom the company had donated to, by speaking out against the law. Then-CEO Bob Chapek initially tried to keep out of the political fight.

Spaceship Earth and Fountain at Epcot

Disney Cast Members Plan Walkout, Don’t Say Gay is Passed, And Disney Speaks Out -  March 2022

During a March 8, 2022 earnings call, Bob Chapek did take a moment to speak out against the law. Then on the 11th, in a follow-up statement, Chapek apologized to Cast Members for not speaking up sooner and announced the company was pausing all political donations in Florida. For many Disney Cast Members though, it was not enough, and a company-wide walkout took place on March 22

The overwhelmingly conservative legislature passed the law and Governor Ron DeSantis signed it on March 28. Alongside the signing, however, Disney released its strongest statement to date, not only condemning the law, but promising to help assist in the fight to have it repealed.

Tomorrowland at Walt Disney World in 1976

Ron DeSantis Threatens To End The Reedy Creek Improvement DIstict And Florida Follows Through - April 2022

Governor DeSantis took exception to Disney making public statements against Florida laws, and so following the company's statement, the Florida governor, alongside some key legislators, began to talk openly about repealing the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The argument was that the special district gave Disney too many perks that the company should not have.

On April 22, a Florida law dissolving RCID was passed, though even before that happened, there were significant concerns about such a move. RCID gave Disney more power than other theme park companies, to be sure, but it also included a number of responsibilities that the state would now need to handle itself.

Judy Hopps roller skating animatronic

Disney Delays Cast Member Move To Florida - June 2022

Back in July 2021, before all this insanity started, The Walt Disney Company announced plans to build a new campus in the Lake Nona area of Florida, not far from Walt Disney World, 2,000 Cast Members were set to make the move, including the vast majority of Disney’s crown jewel Walt Disney Imagineering. The plan was to complete the move by 2023.

But by summer 2022, it seemed things were moving much more slowly than planned. The Imagineering move was delayed to 2026, and while the issues in Florida were not specifically cited as a reason for the delay, many wondered if that was actually the case.

Mickey Mouse at Walt Disney World

Disney World Makes A Move To Protect Itself Before Florida Replaces Reedy Creek - February 2023

In order to overcome the potential hurdles that abolishing Reedy Creek entirely could have caused in Florida, the legislature introduced a new bill on February 6 that would not abolish Reedy Creek, but would instead replace it with a new governing board whose members would be chosen by Governor DeSantis.

Knowing the bill was all but certain to pass, the Reedy Creek Improvement District held a public meeting on February 8, 2023, in which the board and Disney made a deal that gave Walt Disney World more direct control over much of the land within the district.

Darth Vader in Star Tours

The Reedy Creek Improvement District Is Replaced With The Central Florida Tourism Oversight Board - February 27, 2023

The new law was signed by Ron DeSantis on February 27, 2023, creating the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District in place of the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The new board would be made up of individuals picked by the Republican governor who shared his values.

Of course, initially, it wasn't specifically clear what the new board would do differently from the governing body that had been there before. Still, it wouldn't be long before the real battle lines were drawn.

Walt Disney in The Epcot Film

Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Discovers The Disney World Land Deal - April 17, 2023

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District held its first meeting on March 8, 2023, but it was in the second meeting, in April, when the sparks would begin to fly. In the interim, the new board discovered the land deal put in place by the RCID and Walt Disney World, as well as learned that the deal had been written in such a way that it could not be undone by the new board.

While the deal did not strip all power from CFTOD, it did severely limit it, and needless to say the board and Governor DeSantis were not at all happy about that. The board made it clear that it would investigate legal remedies to undo the deal.

During a speech the next day, DeSantis suggested that Florida might consider building a state prison on Disney World property.

Disney Sues DeSantis, New Board - April 26, 2023

Once it was clear that this was all going to court, Disney apparently decided it wanted to go to court on their own terms. At the end of April, Disney filed a lawsuit against Governor DeSantis and the members of the CFTOD in their official capacities, claiming that everything that the state had been doing was part of targeted retaliation against Disney for exercising its First Amendment right to free speech. All the new laws had not changed all special districts, just the one that covered Walt Disney World, which the company is now arguing is unfair.

CFTOP Counter Sues Disney - May 1, 2023

Not to be outdone, Florida has fired its own legal salvo at Disney World in the form of both a lawsuit and a new law. On May 1, the CFTOD filed a countersuit, claiming that the Disney/Reedy Creek deal was one-sided and rubber-stamped by what it called Disney’s “puppet government."

Four days later, Governor DeSantis would sign a new law that retroactively changed the rules on the deal between Reedy Creek and Disney, giving the new board the power to undo the deal itself.

The Monorail at Epcot

DeSantis Signs Transportation Law That Impact Disney World’s Monorail May 11, 2023

While the ultimate battle over Reedy Creek and Disney World is likely destined for a courtroom, that hasn’t stopped DeSantis and Florida from continuing to move into Disney property. On May 11, 2023, DeSantis signed HB 1305, a transportation bill that covered a lot of different issues, but among them was the Disney World Monorail. The language in the bill allows the state of Florida to conduct its own inspection of the Monorail, which had previously been up to Disney World to do. The law limits its scoop so that it only impacts the Monorail, reading…

Any governmentally or privately owned fixed-guideway transportation systems operating in this state which are located within an independent special district created by a local act which have boundaries within two contiguous counties.

Needless to say this particular language ensures that no other transportation system other than the Disney World monorail is impacted.

Spaceship Earth lit up at night behind momorail

Disney Moves To Dismiss Countersuit May 16, 2023

As mentioned earlier, within only a few days, the CFTOD countersued Disney over the land agreement, and the government passed a law allowing the board to undo the land deal. Disney has now asked that the lawsuit against the company be thrown out for that reason.

Disney’s argument is that since a law was passed regarding the deal, there’s no reason for the lawsuit to move forward, as the final decision of that lawsuit would ultimately be irrelevant. Even if Disney were to win the lawsuit, it would be prevented by doing anything differently with that win due to the fact that the law is still enforceable.

Millennium Falcon in Galaxy's Edge

Disney Decides Not To Move 2,000 Cast Members To Florida -  May 18, 2023

In addition to fighting with Florida, Disney spent the first part of 2023 in a period of cost-cutting. Disney has seen several thousand layoffs between March and May 2023, and has been working to streamline its entertainment division. Officially, that’s the reason that the plan to move 2,000 Cast Members, including Walt Disney Imagineering, to Florida has been abandoned.

When the move to Florida was first announced, the “business-friendly” climate of Florida was given as one of the reasons for making the move. It’s hard to argue that the climate is much less friendly, specifically to Disney right now.

Te Fiti model at Journey of Water, Inspired by Moana

Florida Tries To Get The Judge Dismissed -  May 19, 2023

Judge Mark Walker has been given the task of dealing with the lawsuits between Disney and Florida. However, he may not be in that position very long. The Florida side has filed a motion in U.S. District Court to have Walker dismissed. Walker has apparently spoken about the Disney special district issue on the record previously, and Florida is claiming the judge has shown some bias.

A ruling has not been made on Judge Walker's removal yet, but the attempt to remove him has resulted in the case being held in place, as no other rulings will be made until a decision is reached on that issue.

Clearly this battle between the state of Florida and Walt Disney World is far from over. There may still be many moves between the two sides before this ever actually goes to court. It’s even possible some sort of settlement will be reached before things get there, though that seems unlikely.