Florida Governor DeSantis intensifies battle with Disney

DeSantis said the US state will nullify a development agreement that Disney had put in place to safeguard its business.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaks at an outdoor podium
Governor Ron DeSantis has been targeting Disney for the past year [File: Lynne Sladky/AP Photo]

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has said the state legislature will file a bill to revoke an agreement the Walt Disney Company reached to circumvent state oversight of its parks, intensifying the battle between a likely US presidential contender and one of the state’s largest employers.

On Monday, DeSantis said the legislature would take steps to nullify a development agreement Disney struck with outgoing members of the oversight board that ties the hands of DeSantis’s appointees.

“They thought they could create some type of development agreement that would render everything that we did null and void,” DeSantis said. “That’s not gonna fly.”

The Florida governor began targeting Disney a year ago, after the company’s then-Chief Executive Bob Chapek spoke out against a bill limiting discussion of sexuality and gender identity in Florida elementary school classrooms – the Parental Rights in Education Act, referred to by opponents as the “don’t say gay” law.

DeSantis and the Florida legislature have been working to eliminate the virtual autonomy the company enjoyed over Walt Disney World Resort for more than 50 years. Disney employs some 75,000 people in the state.

DeSantis’s battle against “woke Disney” has figured in his speeches as he travels around the United States ahead of an anticipated 2024 presidential bid.

Florida lawmakers passed a bill in February giving DeSantis effective control over a board that oversees municipal services and development in a special district in central Florida that encompasses Walt Disney World.

Current Disney CEO Bob Iger called the move a retaliation, “anti-business” and “anti-Florida”.

Before the takeover by DeSantis appointees, Disney pushed through changes to the special tax district agreement that limit the board’s action for decades.

An attorney for the newly constituted Central Florida Tourism Oversight District last month described what he called the “shocking” revelation that the agreement had been reached three weeks before DeSantis signed legislation granting the state authority over the district.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said attorney Daniel Langley on March 29. “The timing, circumstances and terms of the [development agreement] showed that the intent … was to circumvent the enabling act of this district and to bind the hands of this board and future boards.”

The pact cements a 10-year comprehensive plan, adopted on July 15, 2022, that serves as a blueprint to guide future development. It gives Disney the option to add a fifth major theme park, two minor parks, 92,900sq metres (one million sq feet) of retail space and some 14,000 hotel rooms.

It also ensures that future boards would honour a commitment to $527m in planned capital improvements to support Walt Disney World’s growth over the next decade.

The agreement would remain in force until 21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of Britain’s King Charles III, a legal provision used in contracts to extend a right in perpetuity.

Source: Reuters