DeSantis vs. Disney World: Proposed amendment could revoke development agreement

A day after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he would use the state Legislature to revoke a development agreement The Walt Disney Company signed with the previous board of the Reedy Creek Improvement District – now known as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District – a state legislator has filed an amendment to nullify that agreement.

It is the latest battle between DeSantis and Disney, following Disney's public criticism over the state's passing of The Parental Rights in Education Act, which limits instruction on sexual orientation and gender studies in Florida schools.

In response, the state Legislature passed a law to rename the Reedy Creek district and to replace the board with people appointed by Gov. DeSantis. However, before the new board started its term, Disney reached an agreement with the outgoing board that, according to the new board, limited the new board's ability to govern.

The amendment filed Tuesday by Florida Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, would allow the board to disregard any development agreement or any other agreement signed within three months of the special districts law being passed.

"An independent special district is precluded from complying with the terms of any development agreement…within 3 months preceding the effective date of a law modifying the manner of selecting members of the governing body of the independent special district from election to appointment or from appointment to election," the amendment reads.

It also instructs the new board to read and review any agreements within four months and to vote on whether to readopt an agreement.

"The newly elected or appointed governing body of the independent special district shall review within 4 months of taking office any development agreement and any other agreement for which the development agreement serves in whole or part as consideration and, after such review, shall vote on whether to seek readoption of such agreement."

You can read the amendment below.

"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 previous statement

Disney CEO Bob Iger, who rejoined the company in November 2022 after the firing of Bob Chapek, said companies have the same freedom of speech that individuals do and that he felt DeSantis was retaliating against Disney.

He touted the jobs, income, taxes, and draw that Disney has brought to Florida, including plans to invest over $17 billion into Walt Disney World over the next 10 years.

"Our point on this is any action is that towards those efforts, simply to retaliate for a position the company took sounds not just anti-business, but it sounds anti-Florida, and I’ll just leave it at that," he said.

On Monday, DeSantis said he also wanted to change the rules regarding how buildings and rides were inspected at Florida's large theme parks, which would also include Universal and SeaWorld. 

Right now, most amusement parks and their rides are inspected by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. However, large theme parks are allowed to conduct their own inspections.

DeSantis, possibly as a joke, also said there was an opportunity to potentially develop land within the independent district that's not owned by Disney, though Disney owns a majority of the land. Possibilities included a state park, another theme park, or even a state prison, DeSantis said.

What is unclear is if the proposed bill makes it to the governor's desk and is signed into law, will it be challenged by Disney in court?

"If this becomes actual legislation that gets all the way through and becomes a law on the books, undoubtedly I’m sure Disney, with their many lawyers, will be filing challenges to the legality of that law and then from there it will move to the judicial branch for judges to make determinations regarding whether or not it’s legal," said attorney Whitney Boan, who is not involved in the dispute.

"I think we all are sitting back and watching this in a way that, yes, it could have very lasting effects in terms of setting a precedence in terms of how far our government is willing to go to impose their beliefs even in the face of opposition," she said.