In the latest chapter of the tussle between Disney and the state of Florida, the newly appointed board for a special tax district encompassing Walt Disney World sued the company in Orlando on Monday to try to regain control over expansion at the theme park complex.
The district’s complaint involves a pair of contracts that Disney World struck with a prior board that Disney controlled. The agreements — adopted at public forums — lock in a comprehensive plan for growth on Disney’s 25,000-acre property near Orlando, including the possible construction of a fifth theme park and 14,000 additional hotel rooms.
“These agreements reek of a back room deal,” the district’s new board said in its 188-page lawsuit filed in state court. “Out of haste or ignorance, Disney’s deals violate basic principles of Florida constitutional, statutory and common law. As a result, they are null and void — not even worth the paper they were printed on.”
Disney declined to comment.
The lawsuit, which had been expected, is the latest volley in a 14-month dispute between Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Disney World, the state’s largest tax payer and the nation’s largest single-site employer. Last week, after the new board voted to nullify the development agreements, Disney sued Mr. DeSantis and the new board members, claiming “a targeted campaign of government retaliation.” Disney filed its lawsuit in federal court in Tallahassee.
The conflict started in March 2022, when Disney joined other companies in criticizing a contentious state education law that, among other things, prohibits classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity for young students. (Opponents labeled it “Don’t Say Gay.”) Mr. DeSantis and his Republican allies in the Florida Legislature immediately started to attack Disney as a “woke” company and began efforts to restrict its long-held autonomy in the state.
At the center of the fight is a 56-year-old special tax district that includes Disney World. The district effectively turned the property into its own county, giving Disney unusual control over fire protection, policing, waste management, road maintenance, bond issuance — and, crucially, the planning of real estate development.
In February, lawmakers stripped control of the district’s five-member board from Disney and handed it to the governor. When Mr. DeSantis’s appointees reported for duty, however, they were incensed to discover that the outgoing board had approved certain development agreements, limiting the new board’s power for decades to come.
Disney has repeatedly described the agreements as “appropriate” and struck in public meetings advertised in The Orlando Sentinel. Florida lawyers who are not affiliated with Disney and experts on development contracts in Florida have said that Disney acted legally.
In its lawsuit on Monday, the new board said otherwise, contending that the agreements were illegal. The board said that the notifications in the Sentinel, for instance, “did not fully inform the public or other property owners of the purposes or contents of the development agreement.”
Notably, the new board members are trying to wrest back control over a growth plan that was already cleared by the DeSantis administration.
But that was before Disney — concerned that a new, politicized board could interfere with the growth plan — took the additional step of locking in the approvals.