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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is escalating his fight with Disney in the battle for control over the land where Walt Disney World is located.
Reasserting developmental authority over the 24,000-acre parcel near Orlando, the Republican governor on Wednesday threatened further retaliation against Disney by building another amusement park, a prison or a state park on the land that borders Disney World.
“The possibilities are endless,” he said while previewing other changes that may impact the company’s operations in the state, including ending Disney’s exemption to do its own safety inspections for rides.
DeSantis also announced plans for the board that oversees Disney to void an agreement that allegedly transferred certain powers of the company’s now-dissolved special district back to Disney, and a bill that will be introduced next week to backstop it.
The moves are intended to reaffirm the state’s oversight of Disney after the company quietly pushed through an agreement in February that essentially rendered the new board installed by the governor powerless outside of maintaining roads and other basic infrastructure. The 30-year pact includes approval to build another theme park and restrictions that bar the DeSantis-controlled board from making changes to Disney’s sprawling property without securing company approval.
DeSantis said there are a “plethora of legal infirmities that render [the February agreement] void.” He pointed to Disney failing to provide notice to property owners in the area in violation of the state’s sunshine laws that mandate right of notice and access to governmental proceedings.
The Florida inspector general is also investigating criminal fraud related to alleged ethical violations, such as conflicts of interest and self-dealing, the governor confirmed. He called for an inquiry on April 3 into whether the deal is valid, arguing that there was “inadequate notice” before the deal was struck.
“What you’ll find is that this is a sham agreement,” he said. “This is a corporation doing an agreement for itself without any counterparty.”
DeSantis also cited restrictions on what the district can do with land it owns in which it wasn’t paid anything as evidence the agreement isn’t enforceable. “You can’t have a contract without adequate compensation,” he said, noting that there could be “potential litigation over those legal questions.”
Regardless, a bill will be introduced to revoke the agreement, according to DeSantis. He said state law provides the Legislature with the authority to revoke development agreements “in this exact type of instance.” A bill will also be introduced that will end Disney’s exemption allowing it to do its own safety inspections for rides, he added.
The agreement and any legislation nullifying it is likely to be challenged in court. Disney didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment, though it’s maintained that “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.”
When the new board’s authority is affirmed, DeSantis said he would prioritize paying down the district’s debt. He floated the possibility of selling some of the infrastructure housed in the district, including its utilities, to a private entity to do so.
“We’d like to get that paid off as quickly as possible,” he said. “Once the debt is extinguished, that makes it easier to deal with everything.”
The special district housing Disney World was kept in place with a board handpicked by DeSantis primarily because terminating it as initially planned would likely have led to the neighboring counties of Orange and Osceola inheriting over $1 billion in debt owed by the company.
DeSantis’ oversight board may also consider requiring Disney to post warnings about human trafficking at its hotels, creating more affordable housing for employees, giving the district’s first responders a raise and banning masking mandates.
While the governor said that Disney may be undervaluing its land to keep property taxes low, a tax assessor for Orange County actually assesses the property for Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World.
Disney in 2022 paid $1.1 billion in state taxes, a person familiar with the matter tells The Hollywood Reporter.
During the company’s annual shareholder meeting on April 3, CEO Bob Iger stressed the company’s value to the state.
“About 50 million visitors will go through our gates this year alone, about 8 million of them from outside the U.S., and we are the largest taxpayer in the state,” he said. “And you may find this interesting as it relates to future taxes, but we’re currently planning now to invest over $17 billion in Walt Disney World over the next 10 years.”
Iger added retaliation to “punish a company for its exercise of a constitutional right” is “not just anti-business, but it sounds anti-Florida.”
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