DeSantis calls Disney takeover a ‘success’ despite worker exodus, litigation

Photos via Walt Disney World and DeSantis’ Facebook pages.

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) | Almost a year after state lawmakers passed a law giving Florida’s governor control over Walt Disney World’s governing district, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Feb. 22 called the takeover a success, despite an exodus of workers, ongoing litigation and scandal surrounding one of his appointees.

DeSantis made a victory lap of sorts during a news conference at Disney World, touting a first-round victory in litigation with Disney over who controls the district, which had been led by Disney supporters for more than five decades until the takeover last year.

The governor also said the takeover of the district with his appointees had created more transparency and accountability, reduced the tax burden for Disney and outside shops and restaurants at the theme park resort and made the awarding of contracts by the district more competitive. The district provides municipal services such as firefighting, planning and mosquito control, among other things.

“That is a win, not just for people in this region, but the state of Florida,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis’ visit to Disney World came three weeks after a federal judge in Tallahassee dismissed Disney’s free speech lawsuit against the governor and his appointees to the board of the governing district. Disney is appealing the ruling.

Disney had argued that the legislation which transferred control of the district from Disney supporters to DeSantis appointees was in retaliation for the company publicly opposing the state’s “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law. The 2022 law banned classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades and was championed by DeSantis, who had used Disney as a punching bag in speeches on the campaign trail until he suspended his campaign for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination earlier this year.

A separate lawsuit over who controls the district is still pending in state court in Orlando. Before control of the district changed hands early last year, the Disney supporters on its board signed agreements with Disney shifting control over design and construction at Disney World to the company. The new DeSantis appointees claimed the “eleventh-hour deals” neutered their powers, and the district sued the company in state court to have the contracts voided.

Disney has filed counterclaims that include asking the state court to declare the agreements valid and enforceable.

Since the takeover, around 50 of the district’s 370 employees have departed, raising questions about how well the district is able to operate with so many vacancies. Many of the departing workers complained that the district has become politicized, that politically-connected associates have been hired or awarded contracts, and that the backgrounds of the five DeSantis appointees have been distracting.

One of the appointees, Bridget Ziegler, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, has been called out for hypocrisy after admitting to a sexual relationship with her husband and another woman, even though the Zieglers very publicly have fought against LGBTQ+ rights. Her husband, Christian Ziegler, recently was ousted as the head of the Republican Party of Florida, and the Sarasota Police Department has asked prosecutors to charge him with illegally video recording the sexual encounter he had with the woman.

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