Disney leadership thought the company out-maneuvered Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis this year after a last-minute agreement with local officials gave the theme park virtually unlimited developmental power. But sources tell The Federalist that Disney’s corporate lawyers missed the fine print in Florida statute governing tourist districts.
In February, supervisors running the Reedy Creek Improvement District signed an 11th-hour resolution to hand Disney maximum authority over the company’s 27,000 acres in central Florida. The late agreement effectively left the DeSantis-appointed successors on the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board — which replaced the Reedy Creek board — powerless to govern Disney in their own state.
“This essentially makes Disney the government,” said Ron Peri, one of the new board members appointed by the governor, at a Feb. 27 meeting. “This board loses, for practical purposes, the majority of its ability to do anything beyond maintain the roads and maintain basic infrastructure.”
In early April, DeSantis ordered an investigation into Disney’s last-minute power grab. A source familiar with the investigation revealed to The Federalist that Disney skipped key steps when amending its developmental agreement, rendering the resolution null and void.
According to Florida statute, local governments — in this case, the Reedy Creek board — are required to take three steps when making changes to special district agreements such as the one that established Disney’s quasi-governmental status. They must hold two public hearings, advertise those hearings in a local newspaper, and offer notice by mail to “all affected property owners before the first public hearing.”
In a statement to the Associated Press, Disney said the agreements took place in public.
“All agreements signed between Disney and the District were appropriate, and were discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums in compliance with Florida’s Government in the Sunshine law,” the company said.
Disney’s first hearing on the issue was held Jan. 25, and the second on Feb. 8. The company advertised proceedings in the Orlando Sentinel. The last requirement of Florida law, however, that all affected property owners be given notice by mail, was skipped entirely, according to sources familiar with Disney’s proceedings. The missed mandate means the company would have to restart the process for its 11th-hour resolution to be valid.
The agreement circumvented legislation DeSantis signed last year to strip Disney of its special self-governing privileges. Disney’s last-minute move drew a cascade of headlines mocking the Florida governor as a conservative dunce who got it handed to him by Mickey Mouse.
“How Disney just beat Ron DeSantis,” ran a headline from Vox.
“Here’s how Mickey Mouse outplayed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis,” read an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times.
Even former President Donald Trump roasted the Florida governor for getting “outplayed, outsmarted, and embarrassed by Mickey Mouse and Disney.”
Memes circulated on the internet.
But the governor may have the last laugh, in a fight that began last year after Disney’s aggressive activism against the Parental Rights in Education Act, inaccurately branded the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Disney blasted DeSantis over the law, which barred discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms. It was around the same time that audio leaked of Disney employees boasting about implementing their “not-at-all-secret gay agenda.”
“Florida’s HB 1557, also known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, should never have passed and should never have been signed into law,” the company said in a statement upon the bill’s signage. “Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that.”
DeSantis said Disney’s activism “crossed the line.”
“We’re going to make sure we’re fighting back when people are threatening our parents and threatening our kids,” he said at a press conference in Tallahassee.