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Explainer: How did the battle between Ron DeSantis and Disney escalate?

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis delivers a speech at The Heritage Foundation’s 50th anniversary Leadership Summit at Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, M.D., U.S., April 21, 2023. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger/File Photo

Walt Disney Co (DIS.N) sued Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis on Wednesday, asking a federal court to overturn state efforts to exert greater control over the Walt Disney World theme parks.

Here’s an explainer on what’s happening.

Last year, then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek criticized a legislative effort led by DeSantis in Florida to limit classroom discussion of sexuality and gender issues for younger students, formally known as The Parental Rights in Education Act, but which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” measure. DeSantis responded by urging the legislature to abolish a special district that gave Disney virtual autonomy over the development of its theme parks in central Florida.

The Florida State legislature created the Reedy Creek Improvement District in 1967 to promote the development of Walt Disney World on a 38.5-square miles of land. Disney paid taxes to that district, which provided municipal services and exempted it from some regulations.

In April 2022, DeSantis called on the Republican-controlled legislature to abolish the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which it did in special session. Florida legislators revisited the issue in February 2023, stripping Disney of is special self-governing status and giving DeSantis the authority to appoint a new tourist board with oversight of the area.

Prior to the takeover by DeSantis appointees, in February 2023 Disney pushed through changes to the special tax district agreement that limit the board’s action for decades. DeSantis vowed to nullify those efforts.

DeSantis, in a mid-April news conference, suggested the newly formed tourism board could step up inspections of Disney’s rides, add additional toll roads, or other development of the area, even floating the idea of putting a state prison in the region. Disney CEO Bob Iger has called the governor’s move “anti-business” and “anti-Florida.”

Disney sued DeSantis and members of his recently appointed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board in a federal court in Tallahassee, saying the state’s actions violated Disney’s contract rights and arguing DeSantis’s efforts represent an attempt to curb the company’s First Amendment rights. The company is asking the court to declare Florida’s legislative action unlawful.

Forty-four percent of Republican respondents in an April Reuters/Ipsos poll said they had a more favorable view of DeSantis because of the fight with Disney. However, 73% of respondents – including 82% of Democrats and 63% of Republicans – said they were less likely to support a political candidate who backs laws designed to punish a company for its political or cultural stances.

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