You just can’t make this stuff up. In a surprising, if not shocking, upheaval in the Sunshine State, Disney World’s newly-installed board members have just discovered they are powerless to make any decisions regarding the Central Florida Resort.
The Disney-DeSantis debacle has been in play for over a year now, beginning with Disney’s loud and public opposition to an education bill passed by the Florida legislature in March 2022 that prohibits teachers of students in grades Kindergarten through third from using instruction time to discuss sexual orientation and sexual identity. Disney’s then-CEO Bob Chapek reportedly attempted to steer clear of meddling in Florida politics, but after pressure from a not-so-majority group of Cast Members within the company, he caved to the pressure, ultimately speaking out against the bill shortly before it passed. He then followed up with a public statement of opposition to the legislation after Gov. DeSantis signed it into law.
As punishment for sticking its nose in Florida’s political business, Gov. DeSantis entertained a bill in the Florida legislature aimed at dissolving the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special tax district incepted in the late 1960s that effectively allowed Disney World to execute its own practices of self-government. The bill passed, leaving Reedy Creek hanging in the balance as time marched toward July 1, 2023–the date on which the law was to go into effect, ending the district once and for all.
But in early February 2023, the Florida legislature called a special session to discuss a potential state government takeover of the district. During that session, Florida’s lawmakers moved forward with a variation of their original plans: rather than dissolve the Reedy Creek District, legislators voted to rename this entity, originally incepted at the request of Walt Disney and his brother Roy O. Disney. Additionally, the newly-named Central Florida Tourism Oversight District would have brand-new board members, each one hand-selected and appointed exclusively by the Florida governor.
Only days later, five new board members were brought under the Disney-DeSantis microscope–each one either a political donor favoring DeSantis or a DeSantis loyalist–four men and one woman. DeSantis has been quoted, saying, “There’s a new sheriff in town” several times over the last year, referring to his prowess in taking down the largest employer in the state of Florida and in–for lack of a more professional way of saying it–sticking it to Disney and ultimately having the last word by disrupting its special tax district and forcing it to yield to the power of the state (and the state’s governor).
But all was apparently not what it seemed.
The board’s initial meeting was largely uneventful, except for talk about the future of the Walt Disney World Resort and plans for the location of the resort to no longer be Bay Lake or Lake Buena Vista, Florida. But this week, Governor DeSantis’s new board members discovered just how sneaky Disney can be, ultimately learning that as Florida geared up for a state takeover of Reedy Creek (now the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District), Disney quietly pushed through a development agreement that significantly limits the new board members’ control and decision-making abilities.
While all eyes were on Governor Ron DeSantis and his new board members, no one seems to have paid any attention to what Disney was doing under the table: “simultaneously maneuvering to restrict the governor’s effort.”
In early February, as Florida was holding its special session, another meeting was taking place as well–a public meeting held by the previous Disney-controlled board members–and during that meeting, a new development agreement was enacted, effectively limiting the new board members’ power for the foreseeable future. In short, the new board members were rendered powerless before they were even appointed to their new roles–roles in which they’d be able to shape the future and day-to-day goings on within a 40-square-mile tract of land situated in Orange and Osceola Counties–the same tract of land on which every part of the Walt Disney World Resort rests.
“It completely circumvents the authority of the board to govern,” Brian Aungst Jr., a member of the new council, said during the board’s second meeting, held on Wednesday. “We’re going to have to deal with it and correct it.”
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Governor, Taryn Fenske, issued a statement, saying that the newly-appointed board members had retained as many as four legal firms “to conduct audits and investigate Disney’s past behavior.” She also said that the DeSantis administration fully expects that Disney’s “last-ditch effort” will be found “void as a matter of law,” but Disney disagrees.
“All agreements signed between Disney and the district were appropriate and were discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums in compliance with Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine law,” Disney said in a statement.
The statutes passed by the original Disney-controlled board on February 8 include restrictive covenants, as well as a development agreement that gives The Walt Disney Company massive control over future construction within the jurisdiction of the district, meaning that anything said or introduced by the new board will be nothing more than white noise–and have zero impact on decisions about such projects in the future.
A notice of hearing was published in the January 18 issue of The Orlando Sentinel, according to tax district disclosures, and the matter was discussed during a short but public meeting one week later on January 25. The original, Disney-controlled board then held a second meeting on February 8, during which they approved the new statutes.
“The agreement is effective for perpetuity,” reads a post from The New York Times. “It uses contractual language known as a ‘royal lives’ clause: ‘Shall continue in effect until twenty-one (21) years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, King of England living as of the date of this declaration.’ The royal language quickly spawned numerous internet memes, striking people as odd in a matter involving a theme park that is home to Cinderella’s castle.”
The agreement also makes it illegal for the now-called Central Florida Tourism Oversight District to use Disney’s name or any of Disney’s characters, whether Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, or Cruella DeVil, without Disney’s prior approval. Violations of the agreement are subject to legal action.
“The board loses, for practical purposes, the majority of its ability to do anything beyond maintain the roads and maintain basic infrastructure,” Ron Peri, a member of the new board, said during Wednesday’s meeting.
Four law firms were retained to review the matter and–if necessary–to file suit against The Walt Disney Company. One of the firms retained, Cooper & Kirk, charges nearly $800 per hour for its services.
One of Governor DeSantis’s newly-appointed board members, Bridget Ziegler, took to Twitter to air her frustrations with Disney’s actions, saying, “The arrogance of @disney continues . . . from ignoring parents and allowing radicals to sexualize our children, to now ignoring Florida taxpayers by sneaking in a last-minute sweetheart development agreement, Disney has once again overplayed their hand in Florida. We won’t stand for this, and we won’t back down. If unlawful actions were taken, this development agreement will be nullified.”
The arrogance of @disney continues… from ignoring parents and allowing radicals to sexualize our children, to now ignoring Florida taxpayers by sneaking in a last minute sweetheart development agreement, Disney has once again overplayed their hand in Florida.
We won’t stand for…
— Bridget Ziegler (@BridgetAZiegler) March 30, 2023
The future of the board’s authority to make decisions about Disney World remains to be seen, but what appears glaringly obvious is that the Disney-DeSantis debacle is far from over.