Just before Florida took control of Disney World’s Reedy Creek Development, the Happiest [Company] on Earth, the house of mouse had one more trick up its sleeve.
Disney, DeSantis, and the Battle For Control
The Walt Disney Corporation and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida have been at odds over the last 12-18 months. DeSantis has targeted Disney’s politics and has taken action against the company’s special status in Florida. The Reedy Creek Improvement District allowed Disney to oversee the public services provided to its sprawling resort and manage it under its own control. The development agreement allowed Walt Disney World Resort to oversee otherwise off-limits services like the Reedy Creek fire department and maintain basic infrastructure in its Lake Buena Vista complex.
DeSantis and the Florida legislature targeted Disney’s autonomy in taking back control of Reedy Creek. In so doing, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board replaced the prior Reedy Creek board of supervisors. Many have stated that it’s the public that loses for practical purposes, the majority of services rendered meet or exceed state requirements on Disney’s dime.
The intended purpose was to limit Disney’s ability to expand without first getting governmental approval. Most suggest this was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ response to pushback it got from Disney concerning the bill known colloquially as “don’t say gay” law which limits the discussion of sexual orientation in public schools by teachers with students before the third grade.
Disney Neutralizes Reedy Creek
Weeks before the takeover was to take place, lawyers for Disney gained approval from board members to expand theme parks to a significant extent before the transition period. The Orlando Sentinel reported the handcuffing of new board members,
“We’re going to have to deal with it and correct it,” board member Brian Aungst Jr. said. “It’s a subversion of the will of the voters and the Legislature and the governor. It completely circumvents the authority of this board to govern.”
But, of course, Disney claims it did nothing wrong:
“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,” an unsigned company statement read.” – Orlando Sentinel
It also added some fun language to the agreement:
“Disney’s lawyers also inserted a unique provision in one of the agreements, which among other things, prevents the special tax district from using the image of Mickey Mouse or any of Disney’s other “fanciful characters” in connection with the district’s property.
The term of the provision lasts, according to publicly-filed documents, “until 21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, King of England.” – Wall Street Journal
What Happens Next
While it looks like a check-mate for Florida’s plan to control the company’s future plans, the DeSantis-Disney fight is far from over. A spokesperson for DeSantis made it clear the state plans further action:
“An initial review suggests these agreements may have significant legal infirmities that would render the contracts void as a matter of law,” Fenske said in a prepared statement. “We are pleased the new governor-appointed board retained multiple financial and legal firms to conduct audits and investigate Disney’s past behavior.” – Orlando Sentinel.
Disney will likely challenge any revision of the legally agreed-upon terms and the fight will go on and on as neither party cedes ground to the other. Ultimately, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Supreme Court of Florida or the US Supreme Court (given that Disney is headquartered in California) argue the merits of the case as the two sides push back on each other.
It’s an interesting turn of events and one that could reshape not only the Walt Disney World Resort but also corporate responses to the government. I can understand Disney’s desire to maintain autonomy but Universal (which does not have the same arrangement) has been able to expand without incident. It’s currently building Universal Epic, a theme park so large it matches the current size of both of its other theme parks, the water park, its many resorts, and City walk – combined.
I am personally a fan of adding the language stating that the agreement is valid until 21 years after the death of King Charles III (King of England, as of the date of the agreement) last surviving descendant which I am sure has some sort of antiquated legal validity. However, Disney’s hubris may be short-lived depending on what the courts decide. Who will have the last laugh is anyone’s guess.
What do you think? Did Disney or DeSantis overplay their hands? Does either set a precedence? Will DeSantis punish me for writing about it without permission?