The Cinderella Castle is seen at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, July 14, 2023, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Source: AP Photo/John Raoux, File

DeSantis Appointees Bury the Hatchet with Disney by Approving New Development Deal

Mike Schneider READ TIME: 3 MIN.

Gov. Ron DeSantis' appointees on Wednesday gave final approval to an agreement that buries the hatchet between Disney and the governing district for Walt Disney World, which the Florida governor took over after the company two years ago publicly opposed a state law critics dubbed "Don't Say Gay."

The five DeSantis-appointed board members to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District unanimously voted to approve a 15-year development deal in which the district committed to making infrastructure improvements in exchange for Disney investing up to $17 billion into Disney World over the next two decades.

The agreement followed a detente in March in which both sides agreed to stop litigating each other in state court and work towards negotiating a new development agreement and a new comprehensive plan no later than next year. The district provides municipal services such as firefighting, planning and mosquito control, among other things, and was controlled by Disney supporters before the takeover by the DeSantis appointees.

District board member Brian Aungst said at Wednesday night's board meeting that the agreement provides a lasting and stable framework for Disney and the board to work together.

"This is the day we all have been looking forward to," Aungst said. "I was always extremely optimistic and knew we would get here because it was the right outcome."

Under the deal, Disney will be required to donate up to 100 acres (40 hectares) of Disney World's 24,000 acres (9,700 hectares) for the construction of infrastructure projects controlled by the district. The company also will need to award at least half of its construction projects to companies based in Florida and spend at least $10 million on affordable housing for central Florida.

Disney would then be approved to build a fifth major theme park at Disney World and two more minor parks, such as water parks, if it desired. The company could raise the number of hotel rooms on its property from almost 40,000 rooms to more than 53,000 rooms and increase the amount of retail and restaurant space by more than 20%. Disney will retain control of building heights due to its need to maintain an immersive environment.

Leaders of Orlando's tourism industry praised the agreement, telling the district's board members that it will bring boundless jobs, tourists and attention to central Florida.

"It very clearly demonstrates to the world that the district and Disney are eager to resume working together for the great state of Florida," said Robert Earl, founder and CEO of Planet Hollywood International, Inc.

Still up in the air was an appeal of a federal lawsuit Disney had filed against DeSantis and his appointees. After the settlement was reached in March, Disney asked the appellate court to put that case on hold while the development agreement was negotiated. The company has until next week to file a brief with the court if it wants to move ahead with the case.

Disney didn't respond to an email Wednesday afternoon seeking comment on how the company planned to proceed. The DeSantis appointees to the district had planned to hold a closed-door discussion about the lawsuit after their board meeting Wednesday but cancelled that meeting.

Matthew Oberly, a spokesperson for the district, said Wednesday night that the district didn't have any comment on the future of the federal litigation.

The March settlement ended almost two years of litigation sparked by DeSantis' takeover of the district following the company's opposition to the 2022 law that bans classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. The law was championed by the Republican governor, who used Disney as a punching bag in speeches during his run for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination until he suspended his campaign earlier this year.

As punishment for Disney's opposition to the controversial law, DeSantis took over the governing district through legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature and appointed a new board of supervisors. Disney sued DeSantis and his appointees, claiming the company's free speech rights were violated for speaking out against the legislation. A federal judge dismissed that lawsuit in January, but Disney appealed.

Before control of the district changed hands early last year, the Disney supporters on its board signed agreements with the company 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 in Orlando to have the contracts voided.

Disney filed counterclaims that included asking the state court to declare the agreements valid and enforceable. Those state court lawsuits were dismissed as part of the March settlement.

by Mike Schneider

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