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Disney Reaches Settlement in Florida Lawsuit Over Theme Park District

Disney has reached a settlement in its fight with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over the special district that governs Walt Disney World.

In an agreement announced on Wednesday, Disney and Florida will drop the lawsuits they have filed against each other and negotiate new development agreements for the 40-square-mile area that encompasses the Orlando theme parks.

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At a press conference in Orlando on Wednesday afternoon, DeSantis declared victory in the two-year battle, saying that the settlement ensures that the district will be managed in the best interests of the state — and not just on behalf of Disney.

“Every action that we’ve taken has been upheld in full, and the state’s better off for that,” the governor said. “You now have a controlled board overseeing this that is accountable, that has been appointed by people that you’ve elected, that is not there just to represent one company’s interest.”

Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World, said in a statement that the deal “opens a new chapter of constructive engagement” with the state government.

“We are pleased to put an end to all litigation pending in state court in Florida between Disney and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District,” Vahle said. “This agreement opens a new chapter of constructive engagement with the new leadership of the district and serves the interests of all parties by enabling significant continued investment and the creation of thousands of direct and indirect jobs and economic opportunity in the state.”

The fight between DeSantis and Disney began when the company opposed the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, which limits classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation.

In response, DeSantis and the Florida legislature quickly moved to eliminate the the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the governing body that Disney had controlled for more than 50 years. DeSantis ultimately took control of the newly established Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, but not before Disney’s board approved development agreements that tied the hands of the state appointees.

Disney and the state then waged legal fights in state and federal court, with the company accusing the governor of retaliating for exercising its First Amendment rights.

Under the settlement, Disney agrees that the last-minute development agreements are null and void. The two sides intend to negotiate a new agreement, and drop the litigation.

“We are glad that Disney has dropped its lawsuits against the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and conceded that their last-minute development agreements are null, void, and unenforceable,” a DeSantis spokesman said in a statement. “No corporation should be its own government. Moving forward, we stand ready to work with Disney and the District to help promote economic growth, family-friendly tourism, and accountable government in Central Florida.”

The agreement means that Disney will no longer contest the establishment of the new board. Disney had argued in its federal lawsuit that DeSantis had clearly retaliated for protected speech, and had even boasted about weaponizing government to punish the company.

But a federal judge dismissed the suit in January 2024, finding that Florida had a constitutional right to assert control over the district’s governance and that the state’s motives were irrelevant. Disney said it would appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. The briefing on the appeal is now suspended while the two sides work on a new development agreement.

The settlement comes just two weeks after the state settled with plaintiffs who challenged the Parental Rights in Education Act, which its critics called “Don’t Say Gay.” That settlement clarified that Florida teachers can discuss sexual orientation and gender identity in class — so long as it’s not part of the classroom instruction.

At the press conference, DeSantis said the Disney settlement allows both sides to move forward, and will allow Disney to expand its theme parks to keep pace with Universal Studios. He also chalked up the feud to directives from Disney headquarters in Burbank.

“A lot of what happened with Parents Rights in Education, some of that stuff, was really driven by Burbank,” he said. “It was not driven by Orlando. We understood that.”

DeSantis made the clash with the “woke” corporation a theme of his 2024 presidential campaign, which he suspended after losing the Iowa caucus in January.

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