JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The year-long battle between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Disney theme park is headed to court.
Walt Disney Parks and Resorts filed suit Thursday against Mr. DeSantis and other members of his administration to try to block the Republican governor from taking control of the Reedy Creek district that is home to Disney’s theme parks and resorts.
The suit was filed shortly after a DeSantis-appointed board voted to nullify a last-minute development deal Disney had approved to block a state takeover of the district that the theme park has controlled autonomously for more than 50 years.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, accused the DeSantis administration of “weaponizing its powers to inflict political punishment,” on the company.
Disney and Mr. DeSantis, a likely Republican presidential candidate, have been engaged in a public feud that began with a law signed by Mr. DeSantis banning public schools from teaching or discussing LGBTQ issues to students prior to the fourth grade.
Top Disney officials publicly opposed the ban and asked Mr. DeSantis not to sign the legislation.
Mr. DeSantis accused Disney of “demagoguing” the legislation, officially named the Parental Rights in Education bill but dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
As the fight over the legislation gained national attention, the governor began publicly questioning the existence of the Reedy Creek special district, eventually signing a law to terminate it and install his own appointees to control the district.
In the lawsuit filed by the company Thursday, Disney accuses the DeSantis administration of violating Disney’s federal constitutional rights through “a concerted campaign of retaliation because the Company expressed an opinion with which the government disagreed.”
The lawsuit also claims Mr. DeSantis’s board did not have the right to nullify an early vote by Reedy Creek District officials to preserve Disney’s autonomy.
Disney has enjoyed a one-of-a-kind special taxing and governing district since 1967. Florida approved the district at the behest of Walt Disney, who sought independence from state and local governance in order to build and expand his theme park empire.
The district has held special autonomy and authority over 39 square miles in Orange and Osceola counties, including the Disney theme parks and resorts, more than 170 miles of roads, and the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista.
It had been governed by an independent board of supervisors chosen by landowners in the district and was not subjected to oversight from local county governments.
The law signed this year by Mr. DeSantis revoked the district’s self-governing status and established a state-controlled district. Disney countered the move through its Reedy Creek board, which voted to ban changes using an obscure legal loophole.
On Thursday, a DeSantis-appointed tourism board voted to void the move by Disney to try to block the state takeover. Shortly after the vote, Disney filed the lawsuit.
Neither Disney nor the governor’s office immediately responded to a request for a comment about the lawsuit.