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DeSantis escalates battle with Disney in new legislative push

2023-04-17T19:09:08Z

People gather ahead of the “Festival of Fantasy” parade at the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom theme park in Orlando, Florida, U.S. July 30, 2022. REUTERS/Octavio Jones/File Photo

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Monday fired another shot in his battle with Walt Disney Co (DIS.N), saying the state’s Republican legislature would take steps to nullify the company’s effort to circumvent state oversight of Walt Disney World.

DeSantis, a likely Republican presidential candidate who has made attacking “woke Disney” a common theme, said the legislature would revoke a development agreement Disney struck with outgoing members of an oversight board.

“They thought they could create some type of development agreement that would render everything that we did null and void,” DeSantis said. “That’s not gonna fly.”

The ongoing tussle between DeSantis, who has yet to announce a presidential bid, and one of Florida’s largest employers began in March 2022 when Disney’s then-Chief Executive Bob Chapek spoke out against a bill limiting discussion of sexuality and gender identity in Florida elementary school classrooms.

Republicans named the bill the Parental Rights in Education Act, while opponents criticized it as the “Don’t say gay” law.

DeSantis said the new bill, announced on Monday, would return control of the special district that is home to Disney World to a state oversight board run by the governor’s appointees.

Among other things, it will give the board the power to decide how to develop land adjacent to Disney’s theme parks. DeSantis said the possibilities included a state park, other amusement parks or a state prison.

Disney shares were off about 0.2% at $99.68.

DeSantis and the Florida legislature have been working to eliminate the virtual autonomy the company enjoyed over Disney World for more than 50 years, saying that constitutes an “unfair advantage.” Disney employs some 75,000 people in the state.

Florida lawmakers passed a bill in February giving DeSantis effective control over a board that oversees municipal services and development in a special district in central Florida that encompasses Walt Disney World resort.

Current Disney CEO Bob Iger called the move a retaliation, “anti-business” and “anti-Florida.” The company had no comment on DeSantis remarks on Monday.

Before the takeover by DeSantis appointees, Disney pushed through changes to the special tax district agreement that limit the board’s action for decades.

An attorney for the newly constituted Central Florida Tourism Oversight District last month described what he called the “shocking” revelation that the agreement had been reached three weeks before DeSantis signed legislation granting the state authority over the district.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said attorney Daniel Langley on March 29.

The pact cements a 10-year comprehensive plan, adopted on July 15, 2022, that serves as a blueprint to guide future development. It gives Disney the option to add a fifth major theme park, two minor parks, 1 million square feet of retail space and some 14,000 hotel rooms.

It also ensures that future boards would honor a commitment to $527 million in planned capital improvements to support Walt Disney World’s growth over the next decade.

“We are a government of laws, not a government of individual men or even a government of ‘woke’ corporations based in California,” DeSantis said.