DeSantis, Disney End Battle Over ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill

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Ending a culture-war skirmish between one of Florida’s most important corporate citizens and an executive who had been eyeing the White House, the Walt Disney Company and the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis this week settled a two-year legal battle.

The two sides reached a detente Wednesday, a move that closed litigation in state court over how Walt Disney World near Orlando is developed in the future. The board of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District approved the settlement agreement. The legal battle began in 2022, when Disney criticized a Florida law prohibiting classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity for children in elementary grades. The so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law was supported by DeSantis and despised by liberals.

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As payback for Disney’s criticism of the contentious law, DeSantis took aim at the unusual municipal structure of the Central Florida theme park. In 1967, Disney struck a deal to have such municipal services as firefighting, planning and mosquito control provided by a Disney-controlled body known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

The structure had long been viewed as a sweetheart deal for Disney, one that allowed the theme park to essentially govern itself.

Amid the 2022 spat, DeSantis dissolved Reedy Creek, created the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and appointed a new board of supervisors. In a countermove, Disney sued DeSantis and his appointees, claiming the state had trampled on the company’s free speech rights. A federal judge dismissed that lawsuit in January, but Disney appealed.

“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,” Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World Resort, said in a statement.

DeSantis said at a news conference that “we have been vindicated on all those actions.”

“A year ago people were trying to act like all these legal maneuvers were all going to succeed, and the reality is here we are a year later, not one of them has succeeded,” DeSantis told reporters Wednesday. “Every action that we’ve taken has been upheld in full, and the state is better off for it.”

Next up is a renegotiation of Disney’s growth plans in Central Florida. Before the fight with DeSantis, Disney envisioned an ambitious growth plan, one that called for up to 14,000 new hotel rooms, another major theme park and several smaller parks.

Disney expects those projects to generate $17 billion in spending and 13,000 new jobs.

DeSantis won re-election as governor in a landslide in 2022, then challenged former President Donald Trump in the Republican primary. On the campaign trail, he used Disney as a foil, calling the company a poster child for misguided “woke” policies.

After a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses, netting a grand total of nine delegates over the course of his run, DeSantis dropped out of the presidential race.

Jeff Ostrowski can be reached at jostrowski@commercialobserver.com.