Disney (DIS) has countersued Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis's Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, marking the latest development in the back-and-forth saga that's plagued the media giant.
Disney's filing, separate from the federal case it launched against DeSantis earlier this year, was filed late Thursday in Florida's Ninth Judicial Circuit Court in Orange County, the state court where the Oversight District brought its case against the company in May.
Disney filed an answer to the Oversight Board's lawsuit, along with nine new counterclaims that allege the board is in breach of two contracts it secured to develop and maintain control over its 25,000-acre parcel, formerly known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID).
The special tax district has allowed Disney to operate as a self-governing entity since its inception.
Disney, in addition to paying property taxes to Orange and Osceola counties, paid taxes directly to Reedy Creek. In turn, the district used that money to fund Disney's various theme park projects and operations, including infrastructure upkeep.
That meant Disney controlled all of its utilities and infrastructure, set building codes, operated its own police and fire departments, and could expand and grow whenever it wished — all without local or state government interference.
After entering into the contracts, DeSantis removed Disney's hand-picked RCID board members, and Florida lawmakers retroactively invalidated the contracts.
Disney is asking for unspecified monetary damages exceeding $50,000 and for the judge overseeing the case to force the new district board to comply with what Disney says are its duties under the agreements.
"Disney has no adequate legal remedy for the District’s breach of the Contracts, as an award of damages would not fully compensate Disney for the losses caused by the District’s breach of the Contracts," the company wrote in its request for the relief known as "specific performance."
In addition, Disney alleges that the board's actions violate its free speech rights protected under Florida's state constitution.
The countersuit comes after DeSantis, now running for the Republican nomination for president, signaled earlier this week that he wants to end his longtime feud with Disney.
"We've basically moved on. They’re suing the state of Florida. They're going to lose that lawsuit," DeSantis said in an interview with CNBC on Monday.
"So what I would say is, drop the lawsuit," DeSantis added. "Let's move forward. I'm totally fine with that, but I'm not fine with giving extraordinary privileges to one special company at the exclusion of everybody else."
The ongoing political firestorm, which has seen multiple lawsuits and countersuits from both parties, stems from what Disney characterizes as a politically targeted response over Disney's reaction to the so-called "Don't Say Gay" law. The law, the Parental Rights in Education Act, forbids instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade.
In 2022, then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek condemned the law at the company's annual shareholder meeting after initially declining to speak publicly on the matter.
In response, DeSantis signed a bill into law that allowed him to take control of the company's long-standing special tax district.
Disney had alleged in federal court that DeSantis and other officials launched a "targeted campaign of government retaliation" for its stance on the parental rights bill when the state stripped the company of the self-governing power it held for 55 years.
Florida Circuit Court Judge Margaret Schreiber also denied Disney's request to dismiss the state's case against it.
During Monday's interview, DeSantis stressed the benefits of Florida's economy, which remained mostly open throughout the pandemic.
"No one has made Disney more money recently than me because during COVID they were open in Florida," he argued. "[Disney] was locked shut in California, and we said we want you guys to operate because we understand how important it was that their cast members in central Florida had the ability to make ends meet."
"This is a great place to do business," DeSantis added. "Your competitors all do very well here, Universal, SeaWorld. They have not had the same special privileges as you have. All we want to do is treat everybody the same."