DeSantis-appointed board voids Disney district’s previous agreements

Disney filed a lawsuit against DeSantis and the board members the same day.
Epcot visitors check out the new fountain near the entrance of the theme park and its iconic Spaceship Earth.
Epcot visitors check out the new fountain near the entrance of the theme park and its iconic Spaceship Earth. [ DEWAYNE BEVIL | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published April 26, 2023|Updated April 26, 2023

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ hand-picked oversight board delivered more blows to Walt Disney World on Wednesday, voiding the previous board’s development agreements and restrictive covenants.

The move came as local business owners urged the board to work with Disney leadership. Chairperson Martin Garcia detailed how the board members met with Disney vice presidents but were ultimately slighted by the company, which he said created an “absolute legal mess” that’s pushing the board to raise taxes to cover costs.

“That’s not working together,” Garcia said. “Disney picked the fight with this board.”

During last week’s meeting, the board voted without discussion to invalidate the last-minute arrangement between Disney and the previous board.

The DeSantis versus Disney feud began when the company voiced opposition to the Legislature’s passage in 2022 of the Parental Rights in Education Bill, which prohibited classroom instruction on gender-identity issues in certain grades.

Over the lengthy feud, the governor tried and failed to dismantle the Reedy Creek Improvement District with legislation but had to repeal that law because it would have left local residents to shoulder nearly $1 billion in debt. In February, DeSantis sought again to wrest control of the Disney-controlled district but that effort was preempted to a degree when the Disney-backed board approved agreements that freeze existing regulations in place for decades, undercutting the authority of the new board appointed by the governor.

At the company’s recent annual meeting, Disney CEO Bob Iger spoke up against the governor’s actions, calling the move “anti-business” and “anti-Florida.” Though tight-lipped about the new board’s plans, Disney on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against DeSantis in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

The ‘legal mess’

The previous Disney-backed board passed development agreements and restrictive covenants that attempted to undermine the governor’s control over the newly constituted board.

Daniel Langley, the DeSantis board’s special general counsel, argued Wednesday that the agreements and covenants weren’t lawful, saying the board:

  • Violated Sunshine laws by not notifying property owners of meetings or conduct public hearings;
  • Ignored state laws that required the district to establish procedures before adopting new development agreements;
  • Delegated authority, such as setting the height of buildings, to a private company, which violates the Florida Constitution.

Langley also flipped through slides detailing actions taken by the previous board from 2017 to 2023, when the current governor-appointed board took over.

“[It] just shows you, with the timeline, how rushed this all was,” Langley said.

Alan Lawson, a former Florida Supreme Court justice, called on the board to find the agreements and covenants null and void after he detailed several legal findings in a presentation.

“Disney was openly and legally granted its own special privilege, the privilege of running its own local government,” Lawson said. “That era is now over.”

Disney, Lawson said, tried “to bind the hands of this board.” His findings included that Disney violated the state Constitution and laws by acting without legal authority and without following notice and proper procedure.

Other decisions

The board also voted Wednesday to prohibit COVID-19 restrictions and mandates within the district and announced its intentions to hire several positions, including a special adviser, district administrator, general counsel and district clerk.

The board even floated a name for the district administrator position, with several members lauding Glen Gilzean, the CEO of an Orlando nonprofit, whom DeSantis appointed to the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.