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The Disney-DeSantis Beef May Finally Be Over

Reuters/Octavio Jones
Reuters/Octavio Jones

Disney and allies of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reached a settlement Wednesday to end a dispute over Walt Disney World’s future development after the governor overhauled its oversight district in 2023.

The deal, reached Wednesday, resolves all litigation in state court between Disney and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which sued the entertainment giant for undercutting its DeSantis-backed board last year.

As part of the settlement, Disney has agreed to pause its appeal in a separate federal lawsuit it filed against DeSantis last year, alleging he used his position to retaliate against it for opposing the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill in 2022.

The lawsuit settled Wednesday had claimed that Disney covertly cobbled together a “series of eleventh-hour deals” to illicitly retain development powers just ahead of DeSantis’ board taking over—deals that would effectively render the new board powerless for years.

Disney argued those last-minute deals were perfectly legal, while the DeSantis-backed board said they were done illegally, in secret.

Federal Judge Hands DeSantis a Win in His Never-Ending Clash With Disney

After months of public bickering with Disney over the Don’t Say Gay bill and other hot-button cultural topics in 2022, DeSantis orchestrated a takeover of Disney’s special tax district early last year, with help from the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature. As part of the takeover, DeSantis appointed a board—largely made up of his pals—that ended Disney’s long-held ability to govern itself as if it were its own county.

Despite Disney being one of Florida’s largest employers, and arguably its biggest tourism draw, DeSantis regularly campaigned off their beef in his failed presidential bid. DeSantis’ soon-to-be-appointed board indicated it planned to make Disney cough up more in taxes to Orange and Okaloosa counties, and force it to run development decisions through it— adding red tape to Disney’s future growth plans.

Just before that board was pushed through last February, however, Disney quietly signed contracts to lock in development plans worth more than $17 billion over the next decade—a move that’d make DeSantis’ new board powerless indefinitely, assuming Disney didn’t need any other development approved until the 2030s.

The contracts were signed in publicly advertised meetings, which Disney argued made them perfectly legal—despite the meeting notices being buried in Florida newspapers.

Despite the public notice, DeSantis and the board moved to void the contracts, hoping that would allow his allies to retain immediate power over Disney’s development. That move was political retaliation, Disney claimed, so it sued DeSantis in federal court. The special district then sued Disney itself in state court, alleging its last-second deals were illegal.

A federal judge dismissed Disney’s lawsuit against DeSantis in January, a verdict the company vowed to appeal. As part of the settlement on Wednesday, however, Disney agreed to put its appeal against DeSantis on ice.

“We are pleased to put an end to all litigation pending in state court in Florida,” said Jeff Vahle, Walt Disney World’s president. He added that the agreement “opens a new chapter of constructive engagement” that would allow the company to continue to invest in its sprawling resorts and theme parks.

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