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DeSantis to ax Disney development deal that aimed to undermine state oversight

It's the latest development in a feud that is escalating ahead of the governor's likely 2024 presidential bid.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday outlined the next moves in his political war with Walt Disney World, vowing to nullify an agreement that would allow the Orlando amusement park to circumvent a DeSantis-appointed board, and he floated the idea of developing land next to the park — which he says could include building a state prison next to one of Florida’s biggest tourism attractions.

The announcement continues a feud that has animated much of the state’s politics since March 2022, when former Disney CEO Bob Chapek issued a statement opposing DeSantis-championed legislation to ban teaching gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms up to third grade. The bill was commonly branded “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents and framed as an effort at parental empowerment by supporters. Although the legislation sparked the feud, DeSantis did not mention it at Monday’s event.

At a news conference Monday near Orlando, DeSantis announced the wide-ranging actions against Walt Disney World, which are expected in the coming weeks. 

One of the biggest is legislation that would invalidate a development agreement that allowed the company to maintain a wide range of control over the park and its property even as DeSantis was pushing legislation to take over a board that oversees Disney’s special governing district. Separate legislation would allow the state to inspect rides at major theme parks, which are exempt from such inspections. DeSantis also said the special governing district board, which he stocked with political supporters in February, would take a series of steps, possibly including developing land next to the park.

“People have said maybe create a state park, try to do more amusement parks. Someone said another state prison. Who knows?” DeSantis said. “The possibilities are endless.”

A Walt Disney World spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The latest move from DeSantis, a two-term governor and likely 2024 presidential candidate, responds to legal slight-of-hand attempted by Disney’s attorneys. 

The former board of directors for Disney’s long-held special governing district passed a development agreement in February that would give Walt Disney World direct authority to continue to plan and develop within the district, which has a footprint in two counties in the Orlando area. The board of the district, previously known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, did so as DeSantis and his Republican allies were prepared to approve legislation that would rename the district the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and create a five-person board appointed by DeSantis. 

DeSantis says that the development agreement has legal “infirmities” and that the new board is likely to invalidate it at its next meeting Wednesday, which would almost certainly land in court. And he will ask the Legislature to pass a bill to invalidate the agreement. DeSantis said Monday that “issues with self-dealing” could allow the development agreement to be nullified, but he offered no specifics. 

Observers largely saw the previous board’s passage of the development agreement as Disney’s legal team’s getting the best of the DeSantis administration to maintain control of the district — egg on the governor's face that prompted him to vow revenge.

“They are not superior to the people of Florida. So come hell or high water we are going to make sure that the policy of Florida carries the day,” DeSantis said this month as his administration was writing the punitive measures. “And so they can keep trying to do things. But ultimately we’re going to win on every single issue involving Disney, I can tell you that.”

The perception that Disney duped DeSantis has delighted former President Donald Trump, who has been hammering him for months now as they on a collision course for the 2024 Republican nomination for president. Trump hit DeSantis on the Disney issue Saturday on Truth Social, as well as for attending out-of-state political events in early presidential primary states while Broward County was hit with massive rain and flooding. DeSantis has yet to visit the area.

“First Ron DeSanctimonious got outplayed, outsmarted, and embarrassed by Mickey Mouse and Disney, and now, while Fort Lauderdale is facing the worst flooding in 100 years, DeSanctus is on tour with his ‘shadow’ campaign for president, instead of taking care of the people of Florida,” Trump said.

The saga has been a political turn of fortune for Walt Disney World, which went from being one of the state’s most powerful political players, which helped fund Republican majorities, to one vilified by many of the same Republicans.

Closing out the Orlando-area news conference, Republican state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia quoted from the Disney movie “Frozen” in warning the company against any pushback.

“Let it go, let it go,” he said.