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Disney withdraws lawsuit, ending last conflict with DeSantis and his appointees

Allison Varney

Disney asked a federal appellate court to dismiss its lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday, a day after his appointees approved a deal with the company on how Walt Disney World will be developed over the next two decades, ending the last piece of conflict between the two sides.

The request came as little surprise because the federal lawsuit’s future was contingent on whether a development agreement could be reached between Disney and the DeSantis appointees to the board of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District that governs Disney World, according to a settlement reached in March.

The development deal was approved Wednesday night by the DeSantis appointees. Disney was facing a deadline next week to a file a brief with the court if it wanted to move ahead with the lawsuit against DeSantis and his appointees.

As part of the 15-year deal, Disney agreed to invest $17 billion into Disney World over the next two decades and the district committed to making infrastructure improvement on the theme park resort's property. The district provides municipal services such as firefighting, planning and mosquito control, among other things, and was controlled by Disney supporters before last year's takeover by the DeSantis appointees.

READ MORE: A new theme park? Disney is set to invest $17 billion after DeSantis settlement

“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,” said Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World Resort.

Under the terms of the deal, Disney is approved to build a fifth major theme park at Disney World and two more minor parks, such as water parks, if it desires. The company can also raise the number of hotel rooms on its property from almost 40,000 rooms to more than 53,000 rooms and increase the amount of retail and restaurant space by more than 20%. Disney will retain control of building heights so it can maintain an immersive environment.

In exchange, Disney will donate up to 100 acres (40 hectares) of Disney World’s 24,000 acres (9,700 hectares) for the construction of infrastructure projects controlled by the district. The company also will need to award at least half of its construction projects to companies based in Florida and spend at least $10 million on affordable housing for central Florida.

A DeSantis spokesman said the governor was pleased that an agreement had been reached.

“This agreement is a big win for central Florida and will lead to numerous jobs and improved guest experiences,” said Bryan Griffin, communications director for the governor’s office.

The agreement followed a detente in March in which both sides agreed to stop litigating each other in state court and work toward negotiating a new development agreement and a new comprehensive plan no later than next year.

“This agreement is a big win for central Florida and will lead to numerous jobs and improved guest experiences.” Bryan Griffin
Bryan Griffin

The March settlement ended almost two years of litigation sparked by DeSantis’ takeover of the district after the company’s opposition to a 2022 law that bans classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. The law was championed by the Republican governor, who used Disney as a punching bag in speeches during his run for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination until he suspended his campaign earlier this year.

As punishment for Disney’s opposition to the controversial law, DeSantis took over the governing district through legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature and appointed a new board of supervisors. Disney sued DeSantis and his appointees, claiming the company’s free speech rights were violated for speaking out against the legislation. A federal judge dismissed that lawsuit in January, but Disney appealed.

Before control of the district changed hands early last year, the Disney supporters on its board signed agreements with the company shifting control over design and construction at Disney World to the company. The new DeSantis appointees claimed the “eleventh-hour deals” neutered their powers, and the district sued the company in state court in Orlando to have the contracts voided.

Disney filed counterclaims that included asking the state court to declare the agreements valid and enforceable. Those state court lawsuits were dismissed as part of the March settlement.
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