Disney Reaches Settlement With DeSantis, District Board
Disney Reaches Settlement With DeSantis, District Board

By T. J. Muscaro

Disney’s legal battles against its new governing body, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD), appear to be coming to an end.

On March 27, the CFTOD Board of Supervisors voted in favor of a settlement offered by the company, which agreed to drop two active lawsuits against CFTOD after it replaced the former Disney-appointed Reedy Creek Improvement District Board more than a year ago.

Disney also agreed to concede that the eleventh-hour development agreement that it made with the Reedy Creek Improvement District in a final attempt to retain its autonomy was null, void, and unenforceable.

In exchange, among other concessions, CFTOD would drop its counterclaims against Disney; recognize Disney’s ownership of permits issued by the South Florida Water Management District, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Florida Game and Fresh Water Commission and not impede on them; and negotiate a development agreement.

“I’m very much pleased by this development,” CFTOD Vice Chair Charbel Barakat said. “You know … the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District was created to bring public accountability and transparency to one of Florida’s most important destinations. We’re proud of the landmark work the district has done and look forward to what lies ahead. I think with this settlement, which is complete and significant, we are eager to work with Disney. I’m certainly eager to work with Disney and all other businesses to make the country’s tourism destination famous for a second reason, which is good government. I’d like to publicly thank the district’s general counsel for their Herculean efforts on this front as well as our outside counsel.”

The board voted unanimously.

“We are glad that Disney has dropped its lawsuits against the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and conceded that their last-minute development agreements are null, void, and unenforceable,” Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Communications Director Bryan Griffin said. “No corporation should be its own government. Moving forward, we stand ready to work with Disney and the District to help promote economic growth, family-friendly tourism, and accountable government in Central Florida.”

This fight began in February 2023, when Mr. DeSantis signed HB 9B into law, stripping the Mouse House of its self-appointed board of the then-Reedy Creek Improvement District and replacing it with the governor-appointed board of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

But the origins of the legislation trace back further, to when Disney spoke out against the Parental Rights in Education legislation, promising to do what it could to get the bill overturned.

Disney filed several lawsuits with the passing of HB 9B. One of which was filed in the Florida Northern District Court on April 26, 2023, against Mr. DeSantis in his official position as Florida’s governor, the Secretary of Commerce (previously Meredith Ivy, and now Alex Kelly), and every CFTOD board member, essentially claiming that the transformation of Reedy Creek was “in retaliation for its protected speech” against Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law.

But U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor dismissed the case on Jan. 31, concluding that Disney’s suit lacked standing and sufficient merit, and that case was expected to be appealed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

Since its founding in 1967, the Reedy Creek Improvement District—an area of land roughly the size of San Francisco that includes the Walt Disney World Resort—was set up to be governed by board members who were determined by the district’s landowners.

In the countersuit filed by CFTOD, which was also considered for settlement, Disney admitted that land was deeded to board members for the duration of their time of service. Disney was accused of owning nearly all of the land within the district, and the argument was made that the situation gave the corporation its own government.

Disney also attempted to retain its autonomy over its land in spite of the new government by having the now-defunct Reedy Creek board transfer most of its authority on Feb. 8, 2023, days before the new board took power, including a massive pre-approval of a 30-year control over all land development rights without having to go through the CFTOD board.

The state of Florida disputed the legitimacy of that agreement, and on March 27, Disney finally conceded that the agreement was now “null and void … [having] no legal effect or enforceability.”

The governor’s office described the state’s action under Mr. DeSantis as having brought accountability and leveled the playing field for businesses in central Florida and as affirming the position that no corporation, like Disney, should be its own government.

Speaking at a press conference in Orlando later that day, Mr. DeSantis said he was glad the settlement was possible and that he thinks that the leadership at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts is ready to move forward and work with the new district’s board of supervisors in coming up with a new development agreement.

“I think that there’s going to be ways where we can do things that are in the best interests of the state of Florida,” he said. “And I think Disney can be a part of that.”

The governor said the district’s board will work with Disney on the new agreement and procedures.

He thinks there is an opportunity for a lot of “big wins” and shared his belief in the possibilities of more attractions and other offerings that still wait within the state’s global tourist hub. He pointed to Universal Orlando Resort’s progress on its third and largest theme park, Epic Universe, as an example of the development that can still happen, and he thinks that Disney would want to build a new park, too, in response.

“I mean, certainly, you look at Universal. They’re doing the Epic Universe [theme park] that’s going to be a huge, huge game changer for this region. I got to think Disney would have an interest in maybe offering another [theme park], the district will be ready to negotiate something to be able to be good for the state of Florida, be good for jobs, it’d be good for all those things,” Mr. DeSantis said.

Dan M. Berger and Bryan Jung contributed to this report.

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