A committee appointed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to oversee government services at Disney World voted Wednesday to repeal two agreements that gave The Walt Disney Co. Expansion of a 25,000-acre resort complex.
The five-member board came after its general counsel, Daniel Langley, presented evidence that Disney engaged in what it called “self-dealing” and “procedural irregularities” when it pushed for a deal earlier this year. voted afterwards. Mr. Langley and another board lawyer said Disney violated Florida law in several ways, including by failing to adequately inform the public of the actions it was taking.
“What they’ve created is absolute legal chaos,” board chairman Martin Garcia said of Disney during the meeting. “It doesn’t work.”
Disney had no immediate comment.
The cancellation is the latest in a series of actions Mr. DeSantis and his allies have taken against Disney that will likely lead to legal fireworks. Disney, the state’s largest taxpayer, has said it is willing to fight any attempt to rescind the agreements, claiming they were made under Florida law. One of the agreements enables Disney to build 14,000 additional hotel rooms, a fifth theme park and three smaller parks. The second is to limit the use of docking land; for example, no strip clubs.
Disney passed the agreements in early February — at a public meeting publicized by the Orlando Sentinel — as the Florida legislature, at the urging of Mr. DeSantis, looked for ways to limit the company’s autonomy. Ultimately, lawmakers decided to allow the governor to appoint an oversight board for the special tax district, which includes Disney World. The state previously allowed Disney to choose board members.
When the appointees reported for duty last month, they were outraged to find that the previous Disney-controlled board had approved development agreements and restrictive covenants that limited the new board’s powers for decades to come.
Mr. DeSantis, the Republican presidential candidate, has yet to formally announce his candidacy, but his reaction has been outraged. He suggested a variety of possible punitive measures against Disney, including revaluing the resort for property taxes and developing land near the resort’s entrance. “Maybe create a state park, maybe try to build more amusement parks — some people even say, like, maybe you need another state prison,” he said at an April 17 news conference.
He also said efforts were underway to give the state new authority to conduct safety inspections of Disney World and its 15-mile monorail system, which transports an estimated 150,000 riders a day.
Mr. DeSantis and his allies have repeatedly described their actions as simply putting Disney on a “level playing field” with other theme park operators in the state. In fact, they are doing the opposite. Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Legoland do not have oversight boards controlled by the governor. Based on the governor’s comments, the state’s other major theme parks will not be subject to additional security checks — only Disney World.
For more than a year, DeSantis and Disney have been at loggerheads over the special tax district in which Disneyland is located. Disneyland employs 75,000 people and attracts 50 million visitors a year. Created in southwest Orlando in 1967, the district effectively made the land its own county, giving Disney unusual control over fire protection, policing, waste management, energy production, road maintenance, bond issuance and development planning right. (Florida has hundreds of similar special tax districts. One covers The Villages, a huge senior living community northwest of Orlando. Another covers Daytona International Speedway and the surrounding area.)
Last year, under pressure from employees, Disney criticized a controversial Florida education law and halted political donations in the state — prompting opposition from Mr. DeSantis, who proposed a plan to to abolish Disney World’s self-governing privilege. The education law, titled “Parents’ Rights in Education,” prohibits students from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms until third grade. Opponents called it “Don’t Talk Gay”. The DeSantis administration recently expanded the ban to 12th grade.
Disney Chief Executive Robert A. Iger described Mr. DeSantis’ actions as “anti-business” and “anti-Florida.” Mr. Iger also said that future investments in Disney World could be at risk if the governor continues to use Disney as a political punching bag; the company has earmarked more than $17 billion in spending for the resort over the next decade, and the growth is expected to be huge for the company. Create 13,000 jobs.
Disney will pay and collect a total of $1.2 billion in state and local taxes in 2022, according to company disclosures.
“A company has the same right to free speech as an individual,” Mr. Iger said at Disney’s annual shareholder meeting this month. “The governor is very angry at Disney’s stance and it seems like he decided to retaliate against us, including appointing a new board to oversee the property, in effect punishing a company for exercising its constitutional rights. This really seems wrong to me of.”