Well, so much for a happy afternoon . . .
Posts about Disney World’s new theme park–a fifth gate at the Resort–have filled the news feed of Disney Parks fans since Wednesday, thrilling fans and re-igniting their excitement about the Central Florida parks. But sadly, all is not what it seems, and fans who are holding their breath waiting for Disney to reveal the new park’s opening date need to just go back to breathing.
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Since 1971, The Walt Disney World Resort has added four unique theme parks to its repertoire: Magic Kingdom, which opened in October 1971, EPCOT, which opened in October 1982, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which opened in May 1989, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which opened in April 1998. Along with more than two dozen Resort Hotels, two themed water parks, and a vibrant and growing shopping, dining, and entertainment district, Disney World’s four theme parks offer unique experiences, rides, attractions, and memory-making opportunities for Guests of all ages.
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But that doesn’t mean diehard fans aren’t open to welcoming a fifth addition to the Disney World theme park family. Weeks before the 2022 D23 Expo held in Anaheim, California, there was mass speculation about what might be announced during the Expo’s Disney Parks Panel, and several of us speculated, very hopefully, that Josh D’Amaro, Disney Parks President, would unveil vibrant concept art for Disney World’s fifth theme park. In fact, most Parks fans are not only thrilled at such a prospect, but many have been dreaming and plotting and planning such an addition within their own imaginations, this writer included.
But alas, our hopes were dashed in September as the Parks Panel began promptly at noon, Josh D’Amaro took the stage, and when all was said and done, every single conceivable possibility at Disney Parks around the world had been announced–all except Florida’s fifth park. But Florida’s been doing its own thing for several months now, and that autonomy seems to have led–even if indirectly–to the more tangible prospect of a fifth theme park at Disney World, “seems” being the operative word here.
It’s no secret that Disney and Florida’s lawmakers have been embroiled in a nasty mess of chaos for more than a year, beginning with Disney’s very public opposition to an education bill passed by the Florida legislature in March 2022 that prohibits teachers of younger students from using instruction time to discuss sexual orientation and sexual identity. Disney’s then-CEO Bob Chapek reportedly attempted to avoid getting caught up 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.
In return, Gov. DeSantis signed a bill in April 2022 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. After the bill became law, Disney’s district hung in the balance as time marched toward July 1, 2023–the date on which Reedy Creek would melt and evaporate away, legally speaking.
But DeSantis had a change of heart–not a complete 180, mind you, but he began to think about Reedy Creek differently, and entertained the thought of the State government simply taking over the special district. During a special session held in February, legislators passed a law that renamed the district and gave the governor the exclusive rights to select board members–instead of Disney choosing its own. All eyes were on the governor during the session, so no one saw what was taking place at Disney World.
As the Florida legislature met in Tallahassee, another meeting of the minds was happening–one in which the previous Disney-selected Reedy Creek board members “simultaneously [maneuvered] to restrict the governor’s effort,” enacting a new development agreement that, thanks to a legal loophole, limits the power Gov. DeSantis’s hand-selected board members will have for the next several decades. The discovery was just made this week during the meeting of the board for the Central Florida Oversight Tourism District (formerly Reedy Creek). They were flabbergasted–and angry to boot.
The new development agreement (see below) lists approved developments on Disney’s property through the year 2032, and according to the table of upcoming projects, the use of Disney-owned land for the construction of two “minor parks” and one “major park” between now and 2032 has been approved. But that’s a far cry from Disney confirming or announcing a fifth park.
Though the approval is in place, revelations this week about Reedy Creek’s meeting in February, the newly-enacted development agreement, and newly-adopted restrictions that prohibit DeSantis’s new board from using Disney’s name or the names of any of Disney’s characters seem to indicate that the agreement was made largely as a power play.
According to The New York Times, Disney’s original board approved the new agreement on February 8, and though there was “some local news coverage of the matter along the way,” media outlets “were primarily focused on Disney giving itself the option to build a fifth theme park on the property if it wants.” So why is approval for land use in the construction of a fifth park only now major news? The lure of sensationalism aside, it seems to reason that if such a decision had been made with any seriousness and true intention, it would have been major national news in early February. But most fans are only hearing of Disney’s alleged construction plans in late March.
Add to that the fact that Reedy Creek’s original, Disney-selected board members met at the same time Florida’s special session was held–a session in which lawmakers were to decide whether the state would take over the district instead of completely dissolving it (and Reedy Creek’s board knew this), and it becomes glaringly obvious that the board’s eleventh-hour implementation of a list of approved developments over the next ten years–including the option to build a fifth park–was nothing more than a power play, not an announcement about any actual, current plans by Disney to finally build the long-hoped for, yet elusive, fifth gate at Disney World.
It’s a disappointment for sure–and proof that the Disney vs. DeSantis feud is far from over.