The ongoing clash between Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and the Walt Disney Company has taken a new turn, introducing a perplexing development in their struggle for control. On Friday, Governor DeSantis signed a bill into law granting the board responsible for overseeing government services at Disney World the power to invalidate previously approved development agreements for the resort.
At present, this new law represents a relatively minor development in the ongoing conflict between Governor DeSantis and Disney regarding the potential expansion of the company’s sprawling 25,000-acre theme park resort near Orlando. This is due to the fact that Disney and the board have already filed lawsuits against each other concerning the development agreements. As a result, the matter is currently in a state of limbo, awaiting resolution within the judicial system.
When asked for comment on Friday, Disney declined to provide a statement.
The development agreements in question were initially approved by a previous iteration of the board, which was controlled by Disney. However, the current board, comprised of members appointed by Governor DeSantis this year, argues that these agreements are illegal and has voted to nullify them.
In response, Disney filed a lawsuit against the board and Governor DeSantis in federal court last week, accusing them of engaging in “a targeted campaign of government retaliation.” On Monday, the board retaliated by filing a lawsuit in state court as part of its efforts to invalidate the agreements.
The bill granting these powers was passed by the Florida Legislature on Thursday. Initially, it did not involve Disney. When introduced in early March, the bill’s purpose was to update the requirements for comprehensive land use planning by municipalities. However, at the urging of Governor DeSantis, the provision relevant to Disney was added last month. Democrats opposed this amendment, arguing that it set a dangerous precedent for state interference in individual company contracts.
“Beyond the Disney drama, let’s just talk about the notion of canceling a contract that you don’t like,” expressed Anna Eskamani, a Democratic state representative from the Orlando area, during the debate.
The conflict between Governor DeSantis and Disney began in March of the previous year when Disney, along with other companies, criticized a controversial state education law that included a prohibition on classroom discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity for young students, colloquially referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. In response, Governor DeSantis and his Republican allies in the Florida Legislature swiftly attacked Disney as a “woke” company and initiated efforts to curtail its long-standing autonomy within the state.
Their focus shifted to a special tax district established in 1967, effectively granting Disney World the status of its own county. This arrangement granted Disney significant control over various aspects, including fire protection, law enforcement, waste management, road maintenance, bond issuance, and crucially, real estate development planning.
In February, lawmakers removed control of the district’s five-member board from Disney and transferred it to the governor’s authority. However, when Governor DeSantis’s appointees assumed their positions, they were dismayed to discover that the departing board had approved specific development agreements, effectively limiting the new board’s power for decades to come.
One of these agreements empowers Disney to construct an additional 14,000 hotel rooms, a fifth theme park, and three smaller parks. The other agreement places restrictions on the use of adjacent land, explicitly disallowing certain establishments such as strip clubs. Currently, Disney World boasts four theme parks, two water parks, 18 Disney-owned hotels, a shopping mall, and a 220-acre sports complex.