Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis got married at Disney World in 2009.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images and AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images
Gov. Ron DeSantis gained control of Walt Disney World’s oversight district board in February.
The move was an attempt to strip the company’s self-governing power that it has enjoyed for decades.
But a previously signed agreement may have rendered the new governing board powerless.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ move to take over Walt Disney World’s governing board in Florida may have backfired due to a prior obscure agreement that new governor-appointed board members argue stripped them of their power.
The contentious agreement, approved without fanfare a day before DeSantis assumed more control of Disney’s land, is the latest in an apparent feud between the governor and the company.
And in setting the expiration terms of the agreement, Disney invoked an obscure property law known as Rule Against Perpetuities, setting the date for “twenty one (21) years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles IIII, King of England living as of the date of this Declaration.”
“This essentially makes Disney the government,” board member Ron Peri said during a meeting on Wednesday. “This board loses, for practical purposes, the majority of its ability to do anything beyond maintain the roads and maintain basic infrastructure.”
For close to six decades, Disney has operated its expansive theme park and resort in Florida under a specially designated district that lies between two counties. A board, previously known as Reedy Creek Improvement District, oversaw the area and had free reign of development processes, such as zoning and infrastructure, and even control of its own fire department, essentially operating like a separate municipal government. Disney also had the authority to appoint district board members.
This special status came under threat when Disney entered the fray of DeSantis’ culture war last year, after the company publicly objected to Florida’s proposal to ban the discussion of sexual orientation in K-3 public classrooms.
In a show of political force, DeSantis, who is a likely contender for the 2024 Republican nomination, attempted to dissolve the Reedy Creek district. But the dissolution would have placed the burden of paying for a fire department and road maintenance, among other services, onto taxpayers in Orange and Osceola counties. Residents would also have had to pick up the district’s hefty $1 billion debt.
Instead, Florida lawmakers passed a bill in February to end “Disney’s self-governing status” and give the governor the authority to appoint new board members to the district. Reedy Creek was renamed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and DeSantis appointed five supervisors, including a parents’ rights activist and three Republican donors.
But the new supervisors are now saying that previous board members entered an agreement that effectively stripped them of their powers.
“We’re going to have to deal with it and correct it,” board member Brian Aungst said during a meeting on Wednesday. “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.”
Board member Bridget Ziegler also tweeted on Wednesday that “if unlawful actions were taken, this development agreement will be nullified.”
—Bridget Ziegler (@BridgetAZiegler) March 30, 2023
According to the agreement text, Disney was given a slew of powers including development rights for the next thirty years, or 2053, and the authority to approve any design improvements.
A “declaration of restrictive covenants” also bars the district from using Disney’s name, characters, symbols, or any other Disney-owned intellectual property.
DeSantis has previously suggested that his new board members will be able to tailor the type of entertainment at the park, though it’s unclear how they would be able to do so.
“When you lose your way, you gotta have people that are going to tell you the truth,” DeSantis said when signing the law that granted him authority over the district in February. “All these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate.”
The agreement DeSantis-appointed members are now objecting to was signed on February 8, a day before the Florida House voted to change the existing governing body.
According to Wednesday’s agenda documents, the new district is seeking legal counsel from four firms including Cooper & Kirk. The firm has received more than $2.8 million in legal fees and contracts from the DeSantis administration, The Orlando Sentinel reported.
“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,” Disney said in a statement to Insider.
DeSantis communications director Taryn Fenske said in an emailed statement to Insider that the “Executive Office of the Governor is aware of Disney’s last-ditch efforts to execute contracts just before ratifying the new law that transfers rights and authorities from the former Reedy Creek Improvement District to Disney.”
“An initial review suggests these agreements may have significant legal infirmities that would render the contracts void as a matter of law,” Fenske wrote. “The new Governor-appointed board retained multiple financial and legal firms to conduct audits and investigate Disney’s past behavior.”