Disney and DeSantis-backed board ‘come to their senses’ in new agreement

Ted Shaffrey/AP/File

In a development agreement unanimously approved Wednesday night, Disney promises to invest up to $17 billion in its Florida resort over the next 10 to 20 years and sets up the framework for potential theme park expansions.

The 15-year agreement was negotiated as part of a settlement following a yearslong legal dispute between Disney and Gov. Ron DeSantis. The newly renamed entity, Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, oversees all public services for the Walt Disney World resort area and now has board supervisors chosen by the governor.

“I would say it’s a huge deal and that both sides have come to their senses,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “And realize that this is the best path forward.”

After the vote, Board Supervisor Brian Aungst Jr. said this was “the day we have all been very much looking forward to.”

He said he used the term ‘we’ to encompass all who have a stake in the matter, from residents of Florida, to business owners in the area, to employees of Disney.

“Walt Disney World is inextricably intertwined in the fabric of the state of Florida. And the success of Walt Disney World is the success of Central Florida, and vice versa,” he said.

Wednesday evening, the president of Walt Disney World Resort, Jeff Vahle, said, “This new development agreement paves the way for us to invest billions of dollars in Walt Disney World Resort, supporting the growth of this global destination, fueling the Florida economy, and allowing us to deliver even more memorable and extraordinary experiences for our guests.”

What’s in the deal

The agreement sets expectations on what services Disney may need CFTOD to provide in the coming years, as it looks to expand.

The promised spending, of up to $17 billion, is part of Disney’s previous announcement that the company would invest $60 billion overall on global parks and cruises over the next 10 years.

As Disney begins such projects, CFTOD is responsible for maintaining the infrastructure in the theme park region, such as roads and bridges, fire services, emergency medical response, wastewater and electrical power generation.

Disney World has agreed to fund $10 million in attainable housing projects and to create a local business hiring program where more than half the value of all construction work will go to Florida-based businesses.

The agreement also shows two tables, vaguely describing Disney’s comprehensive plan of five major and five minor theme parks, though Disney has not commented on whether these numbers indicate an eventual goal of building that many parks in the area.

The Disney World resort is currently home to four theme parks and two water parks.

Out of the $17 billion, “it’s my opinion that $8 to $10 billion will be dedicated towards a new fifth gate. It’s been 26 years since Disney has opened a new theme park in Florida,” said Dennis Speigel, owner and founder of International Theme Park Services, a global consultant for theme park projects.

Speigel, who is not involved in Disney’s plans, said the company needs to build a fifth theme park to maintain the mantle as Orlando’s “leader” in theme parks, as their competitor, Universal, prepares to open its new theme park, Epic Universe, in 2025.

Coming off a bumpy ride

But launching new Disney World projects had been complicated in recent years because of Disney’s legal woes against the state of Florida.

In 2022, Gov. DeSantis signed into law the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, prohibiting educators from teaching sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The law also prohibited all employees and contractors of public K-12 schools from using a student’s preferred personal pronoun if that pronoun does not correspond to the person’s sex.

After Disney’s initial silence on the issue, then-CEO Bob Chapek publicly took a stand against the law after mounting pressure from employees.

In what was perceived as retaliation, DeSantis later dissolved the special Reedy Creek Improvement District, created by the Florida legislature and effectively gave Disney the power to control municipal services around its theme parks that didn’t exist before Walt Disney and his builders arrived in Florida. It had been in place at Disney World since 1967 and freed Disney from bureaucratic red tape, making it cheaper to borrow to finance infrastructure projects around its theme parks, among other significant advantages.

That special arrangement, though criticized at times, was largely protected by state politicians as both Disney and Florida benefited from the tourism boom.

“All the board members of Reedy Creek were selected by Disney because the special district government was set up where each property owner got one vote per acre,” Jewett said. “And since Disney owns 80% of the property in this district, they of course controlled all the votes.”

Jewett said if Disney wanted to do something at Disney World, Reedy Creek agreed to it.

“There was no mystery,” Jewett said.

But dissolution of the special district would have saddled local taxpayers with Disney’s debts and providing public services for the 25,000-acre resort.

Instead, DeSantis kept the district but changed its name. He also changed control of the board so that he would appoint its supervisors.

Jewett said DeSantis turned up the heat at one point by suggesting “that they might allow a competing theme park to build on or near Disney property, or maybe they’d put in a prison or a jail…He overtly and sometimes more quietly basically was threatening Disney.”

In May of 2023, Disney canceled its plans for a new billion-dollar Florida campus that would have brought 2,000 jobs to the state.

In January, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by Disney accusing DeSantis of weaponizing his political power to punish the company for exercising its right to free speech.

In March, as part of a settlement, Disney and Florida also agreed to drop various statewide lawsuits they’d filed against one another.

“There was a lot of work behind the scenes. By then, DeSantis had his presidential ambitions, at least for the time being…down the tubes, and he had gotten some pushback from a number of Republicans,” Jewett said.

Speigel said, “It was a lose-lose situation when they broke up. It’s a win-win situation getting back together. Orlando is the Mecca of the theme park industry, and for it to function, Disney and Florida have to function together.”

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