The war between Disney and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis does not appear to be calming down any time soon — as both sides have traded lawsuits in a struggle for control over the company’s Orlando theme parks.
In the latest move, the DeSantis-backed board that oversees Disney World, EPCOT and the other parks will take up a proposal on Wednesday to establish a code enforcement system.
According to a staff report, the proposal would allow code enforcement officers to impose civil penalties of up to $500 per infraction per day — the maximum allowed by state law. The board would also appoint a special magistrate who could hear appeals of citations.
Disney effectively ran the Reedy Creek Improvement District for 55 years until February, when DeSantis’ allies in the Legislature created the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, and gave DeSantis the power to appoint its board. The CFTOD has previously pointed out that the Disney-backed board never had a code enforcement system.
“Like other businesses in Florida, Disney is subject to building and fire codes that are supposed to protect the lives and safety of its employees and guests,” the district stated in a lawsuit filed last week. “But unlike other businesses in Florida, Disney did not have to worry that these safety rules would be enforced against it. That is because the Disney-controlled District board never adopted any mechanism for the enforcement of those codes.”
On one level, the proposal is innocuous enough. It is consistent with the general practice in cities and counties across Florida, and the fines — if ever imposed — would be trivial for a company of Disney’s size.
But it also comes in the context of an all-out political, cultural and legal battle over Disney’s First Amendment rights.
“What this does is to subordinate the property owner, a.k.a. Disney, to the board and to the enforcement officers and to that special magistrate,” said Richard Foglesong, the author of “Married to the Mouse,” a comprehensive history of Disney’s relationship with Florida. “There’s the potential here for hanky-panky it seems to me.”
Foglesong also noted that the old system may have been too lenient. He recalled interviewing the administrator of the Reedy Creek district for his book, and asking him what would happen if he had to tell Disney to do something it didn’t want to do. The man — whose shirt had a mouse logo on it — said it had never come up.
But Foglesong suggested the new code enforcement system could also be “weaponized” and used against Disney on matters unrelated to building and safety codes.
“This potentially gives that board some teeth and some ways to leverage Disney if there aren’t protections in the law that would safeguard Disney from something like that,” he said.
Disney filed suit last month accusing DeSantis of dissolving the Reedy Creek district in an act of retaliation for the company’s exercise of its First Amendment rights. Last year, the company opposed the Parental Rights in Education law, which restricts classroom discussion on gender identity and sexual orientation, prompting DeSantis to blast it as too “woke.”
The CFTOD filed its own lawsuit last week, seeking to nullify development agreements that Disney signed with the Reedy Creek board just before DeSantis’ nominees took over.
The Legislature has also passed a law seeking to nullify the agreements, and passed a law giving the state the power to inspect the Disney World monorail. On Monday, Disney updated its lawsuit to reflect those developments, arguing they fit a pattern of ongoing retaliation.