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Florida’s Republican governor has made it his mission to punish Disney, one of the state’s largest employers, in retaliation for what he labels “woke” corporate culture. Although Disney has thwarted the state’s most aggressive efforts against it, Ron DeSantis has repeatedly promised he will win out in the end.

DeSantis’ battle against Disney has been rocky at best for the likely presidential hopeful. In the governor’s effort to wrest control of Disney’s Orlando-area theme parks, he found that Disney’s corporate lawyers have routinely outmaneuvered him.

But even if he were to succeed in, for example, hiking local taxes or putting a state prison up outside the “happiest place on Earth,” Disney — a $180 billion global media conglomerate run by a renowned Hollywood power broker — will almost certainly emerge with minimal damage to its bottom line.

The latest

On Wednesday, Disney sued DeSantis after his hand-picked board that oversees the company’s sprawling parks district voided development contracts that Disney struck earlier this year.

Disney’s complaint — filed moments after the board voted — accuses the governor of weaponizing his political power to punish the company for exercising its free speech rights in opposing legislation DeSantis championed.

The case marks a dramatic reversal for the Florida government, which had been chummy with Disney for a half-century, giving the company more or less unfettered control over what has historically been called the Reedy Creek Improvement District. DeSantis himself exchanged his wedding vows at Disney World back in 2009.

That relationship is now openly hostile.

“It’s not uncommon for big employers to sue their governments, and frankly, sometimes it happens and there’s not a lot of hard feelings,” said Jacob Schumer, a lawyer at Shepard, Smith, Kohlmyer & Hand in Orlando. “But this case is defined by hard feelings.”

The company said in the complaint that it “finds itself in this regrettable position” and “wishes that things could have been resolved a different way.”

What DeSantis wants

The feud between DeSantis and Disney is now a year old, and stems from legislation he signed that prohibits teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in class, known by opponents as “Don’t Say Gay.”

After Disney spoke out about the bill, DeSantis and his GOP allies in the state legislature moved to punish the company by clawing back control of the land that Disney has overseen as a sort of state-within-a-state for decades.

Much of the governor’s recent posturing appears to be rhetorical, and legal and political experts have cast doubt on whether he’s serious about his threats.

Ultimately, DeSantis and his allies are trying to show that they won’t be pushed around by anyone, even Disney, which employs 75,000 Floridians and is the state’s largest single taxpayer.

“There’s a million things they could do to make Disney’s life miserable,” said Schumer. “The question is, how much are you willing to hurt everybody else?”

Legally, he says, DeSantis can’t single out Disney explicitly because retaliation against a single company is unconstitutional.

“The truth is that governments everywhere have a lot of power to make people’s lives miserable, with the only limit being that people hate it at some point,” Schumer said. “And courts will start finding reasons to invalidate it.”

Disney isn’t budging

Even though DeSantis has invited Disney to “take a hike” if it didn’t like how the state was being run, it’s not clear what authority he has to actually force the company — and the 75,000 Floridians it employs — to change anything about its business.

To be sure, Disney’s parks division is a huge part of its business. In 2022, its “parks, experiences and products” division — which includes 12 theme parks across six resorts world-wide — was its second-most important revenue driver, bringing in nearly $29 billion. Its US parks brought in more than $20 billion last year. While significant, US parks sales represented a less than half of what Disney’s media and entertainment branch, which includes Marvel and the Star Wars franchise, brings in.

Higher taxes on its Orlando park hotels, or even a state prison abutting the Magic Kingdom would certainly be a nuisance. But one that Disney could weather.

Florida, on the other hand, counts on Disney to bring in some 58 million tourists and tens of billions of dollars each year. The company is a massive taxpayer and the largest single-site employer in the state.

In other words: Florida needs Disney more than Disney needs Florida.

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