The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD) board members who were appointed by Governor DeSantis announced they’ll be suing Walt Disney World. This post covers developments from today’s meeting of the CFTOD that authorized this litigation, how it differs from Disney’s lawsuit filed last week, and more.
To quickly bring you up to speed, the new CFTOD board asserted that Development Agreements between Disney and Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), which made national news for use of the “King Charles Clause” and other fanciful expressions, rendered them powerless to offer any oversight over Walt Disney World’s tourist district, effectively undermining their very name.
CFTOD has repeatedly called these eleventh-hour, last-minute, or clandestine covenants that were made unlawfully. It is worth noting that RCID gave public notice of the Development Agreements twice, in January and February 2023, and openly discussed them at two different public board meetings, both of which offered periods for public comment. CFTOD and the governor have also categorized the agreements as being a subversion of the will of Florida voters on countless occasions. However, “should the state get in a costly legal battle with its biggest employer and tourism engine, y/n?” was not a question on Florida’s midterm election ballot.
Fast-forward to last week at the normal meeting of the CFTOD, which which the new district’s Board of Supervisors declared that the Development Agreement and Declaration of Restrictive Covenants entered into by and between the (former) Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) and Walt Disney Parks & Resorts was void and unenforceable. Consider this analogous to yelling “I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY” on the floor of your office. Just because you loudly and forcefully proclaim it, doesn’t make it legally so.
Anticipating precisely this move, the company had a complaint ready to go, and Walt Disney World sued Governor DeSantis and the CFTOD board members in their official capacities in federal court within a few hours. In response to that, the CFTOD called a meeting for May 1, 2023 to discuss a single agenda item: “board discussion and direction to litigation counsel and authorization to defend District officials sued in official capacities.”
The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District meeting started out amusingly enough, with a public commenter who is a Disney Vacation Club member and, to put it bluntly, was mad as hell. He tore into the board, letting them know he always wanted to retire to the great and free state of Florida, that he was for DeSantis as president “until he started this stupid war” that is “destroying us.”
The commenter offered praise for Walt Disney World’s management of its property and infrastructure, asserting that roadways and landscaping on-property are exceptional as compared to the rest of Florida. He contended that DeSantis and the CFTOD have overstepped. “Raising taxes to pay for your defense is wrong; if you take any of our money, it’s wrong. You’re spending our money? You’re taxing us?!” He called on the CFTOD board to resign, stop, or starting doing what’s in the best interest of the district, not what’s in the best interest of the governor.
This follows last week’s meeting, when board chairmain Martin Garcia told Disney Springs business owners that the board would need to raise taxes to pay legal fees. Those Disney Springs operating participants had pleaded with the CFTOD to de-escalate due to their actions also harming them–many of whom are small business owners. Garcia saying the board would need to raise taxes occurred before any lawsuits had been filed. (It’ll be interesting to see if the CFTOD “loses” the firefighters–the one group that had supported them on the promise of pay raises and more resources.)
Following comments, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board voted unanimously to sue Walt Disney World in Central Florida state court. Garcia attempted to justify the move by saying that the board “has no choice now but to respond” since the Walt Disney Company sued them. He went on to say that the CFTOD plans to “seek justice in our own backyard” where both they and Walt Disney World reside.
Garcia also stated what the new CFTOD board has achieved in its short time since taking over from the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The veritable laundry list of achievements related to reviewing documents, hiring lawyers, consultants, and engaging others to fight Disney. To their credit, these are mostly things that RCID never managed to “accomplish.”
He also claimed that the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board is modernizing Walt Disney World. “Disney sued this board to stop us from improving the district and its operations. Disney is asking a federal court in Tallahassee to turn back the hands of time to 1967, but this board is instead bringing the district into the 21st century.” I’m surprised they didn’t take credit for TRON Lightcycle Run finally opening, because why not?
Before turning to commentary, the key distinction here is that Disney filed its lawsuit in the Northern District of Florida federal court, as opposed to state court. The simple explanation for why the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board is filing its own lawsuit against Walt Disney World–instead of answering the existing suit and making counterclaims–is because state court in Central Florida has a higher likelihood of a favorable outcome for the board, governor, and their allies.
In offering his reaction to the lawsuit last week, Governor DeSantis hinted at this. “I don’t think the suit has merit. I think it’s political. I think they filed in Tallahassee for a reason, because they’re trying to generate some district court decision, but we’re very confident on the law. The days of putting one company on a pedestal with no accountability are over in the state of Florida.”
DeSantis’s remark about filing in Tallahassee for a reason is a reference to the complaint being filed in the Northern District of Florida, where the case has been assigned to Chief U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker. This draw sets the company up for success, as Walker has extensive experience with First Amendment cases and his recent rulings suggest a high likelihood of success for Disney.
In striking down key provisions of Florida’s Individual Freedom Act, Judge Walker called the state’s approach “positively dystopian” and invoked Stranger Things in (mind)flaying the law. “In the popular television series Stranger Things, the ‘upside down’ describes a parallel dimension containing a distorted version of our world. See Stranger Things (Netflix 2022). Recently, Florida has seemed like a First Amendment upside down.” That was the opening salvo to Walker’s 44-page opinion.
“Normally, the First Amendment bars the state from burdening speech, while private actors may burden speech freely. But in Florida, the First Amendment apparently bars private actors from burdening speech, while the state may burden speech freely.” The remainder of the opinion is a potential partial sneak peek at Walker’s ruling on Disney’s First Amendment claims.
It may thus appear to make sense for the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board to forum shop to find a more friendly judge and secure a more favorable decision. But it doesn’t work like that. The outcome of the federal case will preempt the outcome of the state case, effectively superseding or rendering moot the state court decision. It will be a hollow victory, totally meaningless in the bigger picture.
So why bother wasting (taxpayer) money to file a separate suit in state court? For like the thousandth time, this is wholly a matter of political theater. The show where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. My guess is that the CFTOD board figures it has a good shot at winning in state court while the federal case is still pending. Politicians and board members will then tout that dubious decision while declaring “victory” and “Florida beating the California company” and whatnot during television appearances in the immediate aftermath of the case.
In today’s news cycle, being first is often more important than being accurate, so headlines about the board and governor winning could carry a certain amount of weight when it comes to public opinion, fundraising, poll numbers, etc. All of that is what matters most to them. The goal here is not governance, it’s “owning” the opposition in the culture wars.
If and when the federal case is decided in Disney’s favor, the CFTOD can still point to the state court win in public, and offer that as the basis for arguing they’ll prevail in front of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. (Of course, all of this presupposes that the CFTOD will actually win in state court, and that Disney will win before Judge Walker.)
Regardless of the legal outcomes, through the prism of political theater, an early win here could be “important” for the governor. Other Republicans have started distancing themselves from DeSantis on this issue, or smelling blood in the water (several 2024 candidates who have commented thus far). Our commentary on two different past posts (here and here) largely revolved around that angle of the battle, questioning whether DeSantis has overplayed his hand, or made a miscalculation in continuing to push this once Iger returned. As always, it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out from here.
Thoughts on the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District suing Walt Disney World in state court in Central Florida? Think it’s a savvy move, or a waste of tax dollars that could be better spent elsewhere? Any other reactions to the latest season of the RCID/CFTOD drama? Hope this escalating battle starts to de-escalate soon so we can focus again on the fun of the parks? Keep the comments civil, and avoid personal attacks or perpetuating pointless culture wars. Respectfully debating the change is totally fine, but don’t attack others or troll for controversy. That’s why Facebook was invented.