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Now that the fight with DeSantis appointees has ended, Disney set to invest $17B in Florida parks

By MIKE SCHNEIDER, Associated Press
Published: June 5, 2024, 7:45am

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Months after Disney and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appointees agreed to end a protracted legal fight, the two sides are set to approve an agreement that could result in the company investing $17 billion into its Florida resort and opens the door to a fifth major theme park at Walt Disney World.

The five DeSantis-appointed supervisors who oversee the Disney World district will vote Wednesday on a new development agreement that both sides had agreed to negotiate after a March settlement ended their state court lawsuits against each other.

The agreement between Disney and the Central Florida Tourism and Oversight District would last for the next 15 years. The district provides municipal services such as firefighting, planning and mosquito control, among other things. It was controlled by Disney supporters for most of its five decades until it was taken over by the DeSantis appointees last year.

Under the deal’s terms, during the next decade or two, Disney would be approved to build a fifth major theme park at Disney World and two more minor parks, such as water parks. The company could raise the number of hotel rooms on its property from almost 40,000 rooms to more than 53,000 rooms and increase the amount of retail and restaurant space by more than 20%. Disney would retain control of building heights due to its need to maintain an immersive environment.

In exchange, Disney would be required to donate up to 100 acres (40 hectares) of Disney World’s 24,000 acres (9,700 hectares) for the construction of infrastructure projects controlled by the district. The company also would need to award at least half of its construction projects to companies based in Florida and spend at least $10 million on affordable housing for central Florida.

The settlement in March ended almost two years of litigation that was sparked by DeSantis’ takeover of the district from Disney supporters following the company’s opposition to a Florida law critics dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.”

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.

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. As part of the March settlement, Disney agreed to put on hold the appeal of the federal lawsuit.

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. Those state court lawsuits were dismissed as part of the March settlement.

Follow Mike Schneider on X, formerly known as Twitter: @MikeSchneiderAP.