Disney sues DeSantis: The latest on the escalating feud — and how we got here

The Walt Disney Co. filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday alleging the governor waged a “targeted campaign of government retaliation.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Mickey Mouse.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Mickey Mouse. (Justin Ide/Reuters, Frank Polich/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The ongoing feud between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Walt Disney Co. took another turn Wednesday when the company filed suit against DeSantis, alleging that he has waged a “targeted campaign of government retaliation” against it over “protected speech.”

Here’s everything we know about the dispute, culled from our original reporting and Yahoo News’ partner network, including the Associated Press, Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel.

How did DeSantis’s fight with Disney begin?

A young woman holds a rainbow-colored Mickey Mouse cutout, with the Magic Kingdom in the background.
A supporter of a gay-friendly Walt Disney Co. in Orlando last summer. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

The long-running rift between DeSantis and the Walt Disney Co. started nearly two years ago when the company required on-site employees at its Orlando theme park to be vaccinated against COVID-19, the Miami Herald reports. DeSantis, in response, announced that he would impose fines on Disney and other companies with vaccine mandates.

Things escalated last year when the governor took aim at Disney for publicly opposing legislation restricting schools from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity, which critics called the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. (The Florida Board of Education recently approved an expanded version of the law at the governor’s request.)

DeSantis urged the Florida Legislature to retaliate by passing legislation that gives the governor control of Walt Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District and allows him to appoint a five-member board of supervisors. A 1967 Florida law created a special district that allows Disney to govern itself.

“There’s a new sheriff in town,” DeSantis said in February when he signed the legislation.

Last week, the governor and state lawmakers proposed legislation that would require state inspections of Disney World rides and prevent it from ever having another mask mandate, the Orlando Sentinel reported. DeSantis even floated the idea of building a state prison next to the theme park.

“I mean, I just think that the possibilities are endless," he said.

How has Disney responded?

Bob Iger.
Disney CEO Bob Iger. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

In February, before DeSantis took control, the company quietly stripped the incoming board of most powers before the new members could take their seats. DeSantis accused Disney of blindsiding him and ordered an investigation into its actions.

Disney CEO Bob Iger defended the move at the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting, calling the governor’s attempts at retaliation “anti-business and anti-Florida.”

“A company has a right to freedom of speech just like an individual does,” Iger said, according to the Miami Herald. “[DeSantis] retaliates against us — in effect to punish a company for exercising its constitutional right. And that seems really wrong to me.”

What’s the latest in the dispute?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in full froth.
DeSantis at a conference at Jerusalem's Museum of Tolerance on Thursday. (Maya Alleruzzo/Pool via Reuters)

Disney sued DeSantis in federal court on Wednesday, claiming the company is a victim of the governor’s "targeted campaign of government retaliation" after it opposed the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

In its 77-page lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee, Disney asked the court to intervene and order DeSantis to stop punishing the company for what it says is constitutionally protected free speech.

According to the Associated Press, the suit was filed “minutes after a Disney World oversight board appointed by DeSantis voted to void a deal that gave the company authority over design and construction decisions in its sprawling properties near Orlando.”

"Disney regrets that it has come to this," the company said. “But having exhausted efforts to seek a resolution, the company is left with no choice but to file this lawsuit to protect its cast members, guests, and local development partners from a relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain state officials.”

The governor, who is currently in Israel, responded to the lawsuit during an event in Jerusalem on Thursday.

“I don’t think the suit has merit,” he said. “I think it’s political.”

DeSantis, a self-styled culture warrior and critic of so-called woke ideology, has used such clashes to leverage his national profile as he weighs a bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

What has been the response from other Republicans?

Nikki Haley, smiling, at the microphone.
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 3. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)

Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and 2024 Republican presidential candidate, needled DeSantis, saying her home state of South Carolina would gladly take Disney should the company choose to move out of Florida.

“Hey @Disney, my home state will happily accept your 70,000+ jobs if you want to leave Florida,” Haley tweeted. “We’ve got great weather, great people, and it’s always a great day in South Carolina! SC’s not woke, but we’re not sanctimonious about it either.”

Former President Donald Trump called DeSantis’s ongoing feud with Disney “unnecessary” and “a political STUNT!”

During a livestreamed interview last week, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is considering jumping into the 2024 race, said that if DeSantis can’t navigate a feud with Disney, he's “not the guy I want sitting across from [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping] ... or sitting across from [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and trying to resolve what’s happening in Ukraine.”

Christie added: “I don’t think Ron DeSantis is a conservative, based on his actions towards Disney.”

“It’s not good for Gov. DeSantis,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, another potential 2024 candidate, recently told CNN. “I don't think it’s good for the Republican Party.”

Wait, didn’t DeSantis get married at Disney World?

Casey and Ron DeSantis at their 2009 wedding
Casey and Ron DeSantis at their 2009 wedding. (via Facebook)

He did.

“Long before Disney became what he derides as a ‘woke corporation,’ its sprawling theme park near Orlando was the venue where he once said his ‘I Do's,’” Insider reported last fall.

Here’s how it described his nuptials: “Dressed in his white, decorated Naval uniform, DeSantis exchanged wedding vows with Casey DeSantis, whose maiden name was Black, at the Grand Floridian's wedding pavilion, a chapel with arched windows overlooking Cinderella's Castle and the Seven Seas Lagoon. The reception was held at Epcot's Italy Isola, in a nod to the couple's Italian heritage.”

In a joint interview with Ron and Casey DeSantis on Sirius XM in February, the governor said his wife chose the venue, which, given the current feud, he admitted is “kind of ironic.”