DeSantis and Disney settle lawsuit sparked by Florida governor’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

DeSantis and Disney settle lawsuit sparked by Florida governor’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

Allies of Gov. Ron DeSantis and Disney reached a settlement agreement Wednesday in a state court fight over how Walt Disney World is developed in the future following the takeover of the theme park resort’s government by the Florida governor.

In a meeting, the DeSantis-appointed members of the board of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District approved the settlement agreement, ending almost two years of litigation that was sparked by DeSantis’s takeover of the district from Disney supporters following the company’s opposition to Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law.

The 2022 law bans classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades and was championed by the Republican governor, who used Disney as a punching bag in speeches until he suspended his presidential campaign this year.

The district provides municipal services such as firefighting, planning and mosquito control, among other things, and was controlled by Disney supporters for most of the five decades it has existed.

The agreement came a day after the appointment of a new board member, replacing a DeSantis-appointed board chairman who was a Disney critic. Under the deal, covenants and a development agreement Disney supporters on the board made with the company just before the state takeover would be dropped and the new board agreed to operate under an earlier plan.

Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World Resort, said in a statement Wednesday that the company was pleased a settlement had been reached.

A person in sunglasses and a mask stands in front of picket signs that say Disney, stand with us against Don't Say Gay.
A demonstrator wearing a rainbow colour face mask takes part in a protest as Disney’s employees demonstrate against Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in March 2022. (Ringo Chiu/Reuters)

“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,” Vahle said.

DeSantis, who was in Orlando on Wednesday, said at a news conference that “we have been vindicated on all those actions.”

“I’m glad that they were able to do that settlement,” DeSantis said. “Those 11th hour covenants and restrictions were never going to be valid. We knew that.”

Both sides called ‘uncle’

As punishment for Disney’s opposition to the controversial law, DeSantis took over the governing district through legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature and appointed a new board of supervisors.

Disney sued DeSantis and his appointees, claiming the company’s free speech rights were violated for speaking out against the legislation. A federal judge dismissed that lawsuit in January, but Disney appealed.

Before control of the district changed hands from Disney allies to DeSantis appointees early last year, the Disney supporters on its board signed agreements with Disney shifting control over design and construction at Disney World to the company. The new DeSantis appointees claimed the “eleventh-hour deals” neutered their powers and the district sued the company in state court in Orlando to have the contracts voided.

Disney filed counterclaims that included asking the state court to declare the agreements valid and enforceable.

Under the terms of Wednesday’s settlement agreement, Disney lets stand a determination by the board of DeSantis appointees that the comprehensive plan approved by the Disney supporters before the takeover is null and void. Disney also agrees that a development agreement and restrictive covenants passed before the takeover are also not valid, according to the settlement terms.

Instead, a comprehensive plan from 2020 will be used with the new board able to make changes to it, and the agreement suggests Disney and the new board will negotiate a new development agreement in the near future.

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Disney also agreed to put on hold the appeal of the federal lawsuit pending the negotiations on the development agreement and other matters, and it will drop its two state lawsuits against the district, one of which was a public records complaint.

“It looks to me like both sides called ‘uncle,'” said Richard Foglesong, a Rollins College professor emeritus who wrote a definitive account of Disney World’s governance in his book, Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando.

“Disney has an interest in ending this and so does the oversight board,” he added. “So, they both win.”

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