Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis escalates his battle with Disney over control of the land where Walt Disney World is located.
The Republican governor reaffirmed development authority over the 24,000-acre lot near Orlando and on Wednesday threatened further retaliation against Disney by building another theme park, prison or state park on land adjacent to Disney World.
“The possibilities are endless,” he said as he looked ahead to other changes that could affect the company’s business in the state, including ending Disney’s exemption from doing its own ride safety inspections.
DeSantis also announced plans for the board he appointed to oversee Disney to void the agreement that allegedly transferred the powers of the company’s now-dissolved special district back to Disney before taking control and a bill that will be introduced next week to stop it.
The moves are designed to strengthen the state’s oversight of Disney after the company quietly pushed through an agreement in February that essentially renders the new board installed by the governor powerless beyond its ability to maintain roads and other basic infrastructure. The 30-year pact includes approval to build another theme park and restrictions preventing the DeSantis-controlled board from making changes to Disney’s sprawling property without obtaining the company’s approval.
DeSantis said there is a “plethora of legal flaws that nullify them.” He pointed out that Disney failed to notify property owners in the area, in violation of sunshine laws that mandate the right to notice and access to government procedures.
Florida’s inspector general is investigating criminal fraud for alleged ethical violations, such as conflicts of interest and self-dealing, the governor confirmed. He called for an investigation into the validity of the deal on April 3, arguing that there was “insufficient notice” before closing the deal.
“What you will find is that this is a sham deal,” he said. “This is a company making a deal for itself without any counterparty.”
DeSantis also cited restrictions on what the district can do with land it owns and paid nothing for as evidence that the agreement is unenforceable. “You can’t have a contract without adequate compensation,” he said, pointing out that “potential lawsuits over those legal issues” could arise.
Either way, a bill will be introduced to repeal the agreement, DeSantis said. He said state law gives the legislature the power to revoke development agreements “in precisely these cases.” A bill will also be introduced that would end Disney’s exemption, allowing Disney to conduct its own safety inspections for attractions, he added.
The agreement and any legislation that nullifies it will likely be challenged in court. Disney did not immediately respond to requests for comment, though it is stated that “all agreements between Disney and the District were appropriate and discussed and approved in open, noted public forums in accordance with the Florida government’s Sunshine Act.”
When the new board’s authority is confirmed, DeSantis said he could prioritize paying off the district’s debt. He floated the possibility of selling some of the infrastructure in the district, including the utilities, to a private entity to do so.
“We want to get that paid as soon as possible,” he said. “Once the debt is paid off, it becomes easier to deal with everything.”
The district that housed Disney World was kept in place with a board handpicked by DeSantis, primarily because ending it as originally planned would likely have left neighboring Orange and Osceola counties with more than $1 billion in debt. would inherit from the company.
The DeSantis oversight board may also consider requiring Disney to post human trafficking warnings in its hotels, create more affordable housing for employees, give the district’s first responders a pay raise and ban masking mandates.
While the governor said Disney may be undervaluing its land to keep property taxes low, an Orange County tax advisor is assessing real estate for Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World.
Disney paid $1.1 billion in state taxes in 2022, says a person familiar with the matter The Hollywood Reporter.
At the company’s annual shareholder meeting on April 3, CEO Bob Iger emphasized the company’s value to the state.
“This year alone, about 50 million visitors will pass through our gates, about 8 million of them from outside the US, and we are the largest taxpayer in the state,” he said. “You may find this interesting because it relates to future taxes, but we currently plan to invest more than $17 billion in Walt Disney World over the next 10 years.”
Iger added retaliation to “punish a corporation for exercising a constitutional right” is “not just anti-business, but it sounds anti-Florida.”