Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered an investigation into the recent actions and the former leadership of Walt Disney World's special planning district in the Orlando area — as Disney CEO Bob Iger called out actions and legislation targeting his company as "anti-business" and "anti-Florida."
DeSantis' latest move comes after revelations that the state's planned takeover of the district may have been circumvented.
In a letter to Florida's chief inspector general released Monday, DeSantis asked for an investigation into the legality of a February declaration approved by the board that oversaw the Reedy Creek Improvement District. That declaration appears to give Walt Disney World direct corporate power to plan and develop the area.
DeSantis further calls for an investigation into the qualifications of that board’s leadership, as well as any potential involvement of Disney employees and agents in executing the new document, and new communications between Disney and the board.
As the largest landowner in the region, which was recently renamed the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, Disney maintained a de facto control over the previous board.
DeSantis also alleges the February declaration may not be legally binding, citing unnamed legal counsel. A note from DeSantis’ office accompanying Monday’s letter states that “all legislative options are back on the table” for responding to the latest development in the clash between the governor's office and the global entertainment giant.
“These collusive and self-dealing arrangements aim to nullify the recently passed legislation, undercut Florida’s legislative process, and defy the will of Floridians," DeSantis writes in the letter.
The declaration was approved at a hearing Feb. 8, one day before the Florida House approved a new law giving him control over appointing new leadership of the district.
“This essentially makes Disney the government,” Ron Peri, one of the new board members appointed to the CFTOD by DeSantis, said at a Feb. 27 meeting, when the meaning of the declaration first appeared to be understood. “This board loses, for practical purposes, the majority of its ability to do anything beyond maintain the roads and maintain basic infrastructure.”
'The governor got very angry'
In remarks during Disney's annual shareholder meeting later Monday, Iger addressed investor inquiries about the ongoing dispute between the company and Florida lawmakers. He noted that Disney has more than 75,000 employees in the state, has created thousands of indirect jobs, brings around 50 million visitors to Florida every year, and is the state’s largest taxpayer.
“A year ago, the company took a position on pending Florida legislation,” he said, apparently referring to DeSantis' bill to ban teaching about gender and sexual orientation from kindergarten to third grade. “And while the company may have not handled the position that it took very well, a company has a right to freedom of speech just like individuals do.”
Iger added: “The governor got very angry about the position Disney took and seems like he’s decided to retaliate against us, including the naming of a new board to oversee the property and the business. In effect, to seek to punish a company for its exercise of a constitutional right. And that just seems really wrong to me.”
Iger said Disney plans to spend more than $17 billion in investments at Walt Disney World over the next decade, which he estimated would create around 13,000 jobs at the company and generate even more taxes for Florida.
“Our point on this is that any action that supports those efforts simply to retaliate for a position the company took sounds not just anti-business, but it sounds anti-Florida,” he said. “And I’ll just leave it at that.”
The Florida inspector general's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.