Governor Ron DeSantis went on the offensive, promising more action against Walt Disney World in the escalating battle between Florida and its biggest employer during a press conference in Lake Buena Vista on April 17, 2023. This post shares what was announced by the state–everything from a vow to void the Reedy Creek development agreement to DeSantis joking about building a prison next to the parks.
By way of quick background, this follows DeSantis’ sit-down at Hillsdale College in Michigan last week, during which he said: “now that Disney has reopened this issue, we’re not just going to void the development agreement they tried to do; we’re going to look at things like taxes on the hotels; we’re going to look at things like tolls on the roads; we’re going to look at things like developing some of the property that the district owns.”
In terms of the political posturing and messaging, much of today’s press conference was similar to that Hillsdale College interview. DeSantis repeatedly accused Disney of trying to pull one over on the state and attempting to operate outside the context of the constitutional system in Florida. He reiterated previous statements that Florida would win over Disney on every issue.
Governor DeSantis spoke at 12:45 p.m. in Lake Buena Vista, along with Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson and other individuals whose names I did not catch. The video was live streamed on the thefloridachannel.org. (Unfortunately, there’s not yet a transcript and I don’t type quickly enough to catch everything, so a lot of the following is paraphrased.)
The first couple of minutes were mostly an uneventful recap of what had already happened. After that, hr addressed the development agreement between Walt Disney World and the former Reedy Creek board. “Disney did basically special deals to circumvent that whole process…Disney negotiated with themselves to maintain their self governance. That was in direct defiance of the will of the people of Florida.”
DeSantis lamented how his approach to leveling the playing field with Disney had been criticized by the media, noting that they had always opposed Disney’s self-governance until DeSantis stepped in and was the one who ended Disney’s special arrangement.
He further pointed out that this was something that was litigated in the court of public opinion prior to the last election, that the voters understood. DeSantis pointed out that he overperformed in Central Florida than anyone in a long time, including areas of Osceola County where there are a lot of Disney employees.
DeSantis contended that the “development agreements [between Reedy Creek and Walt Disney World] have a number of legal infirmities that render them void.” He went on to call it a “sham agreement,” claiming that there were numerous issues and deficiencies, including insufficient notice to residents, a lack of valuable consideration necessary for a valid contract, and self-dealing since Walt Disney World was effectively entering into a contract with itself.
“However, even if that weren’t the case…the Florida legislature has the authority to revoke developer agreements in this instance. In accordance with that, the agreements will be voided.” (DeSantis referred to a specific section of Florida statutes, but I did not catch the citation.)
DeSantis explained that Florida “made the decision to not have one corporation superior to everyone else” and that he “wants to make sure that Disney lives under the same laws as everyone else.”
He further indicated that he has mobilized state agencies to ensure that Walt Disney World is following the same rules as other businesses, including building inspections and everything else. DeSantis said the legislature will soon introduce a bill that gives the state the authority to inspect rides and the monorail, to make sure that Walt Disney World is actually operating safely.
DeSantis also indicated that one of the things Walt Disney World tried to do is place restrictive covenants on land, including that land the district owned within or adjacent to Walt Disney World.
DeSantis indicated he “wasn’t even thinking about other land that the district owned, but the possibilities are endless.” He speculated about possible things the new board could do with that land, including building a state fair or prison (the latter sounded tongue-in-cheek…but given how this has escalated thus far, who knows?!). According to DeSantis, that was not previously on his radar, but everything is on the table now that Walt Disney World has reopened the issue.
DeSantis also discussed the possibility of selling off utilities in order to raise money, and discussed what those funds could go towards. He stated that the new board is interested in first responders, who previously had no recourse for grievances and complained about lack of pay increases. The new board will try to get pay increases done, according to DeSantis.
In addition to this, DeSantis presented a laundry list of other grievances. He contended that “Disney forced young kids to wear masks forever.” DeSantis proclaimed that the new board will prevent “medical authoritarian policies.” Later in the press conference, DeSantis noted that Walt Disney World was able to open earlier than they did, but opted to wait. He also pointed out that Disneyland was closed for much longer by the state of California.
Bills against human trafficking will be pursued. DeSantis said that previously those bills had been “watered down” by the lobbying of Disney and the hotel industry. The board will also look into property values, as Disney previously appraised its own land values and thus would have an incentive to assess its own values lower. The board will look into appraising those independently.
DeSantis said he would like to see the district’s billion-dollar debt paid down more quickly, by accelerating debt payments. He also discussed the role the district can play in ensuring more workforce housing in this district. There have been a lot of promises about affordable housing for the workforce, but very little follow-through. Per the governor, there will be a lot of action on this, making sure that the vision is made into a reality.
One thing DeSantis did appear to walk back is his previous statement at Hillsdale College about new toll roads through Walt Disney World. He suggested this was something that had been considered before, but the state had “cooled” on it because there was no way to exempt residents from tolls. He reiterated that it was within the authority of the district, but seemed to imply it wasn’t a power they’d exercise.
DeSantis also discussed a new bill that would be introduced in the Florida Legislature pertaining to ride safety at Walt Disney World. He noted that the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) is in charge of amusement park safety but that Walt Disney World is currently exempt. At present, the FDACS has statewide responsibility to inspect all amusement rides in Florida, except for those at large parks that have more than 1,000 employees and have full-time inspectors on staff.
This is not simply an exemption for Walt Disney World, as it also applies to SeaWorld, Universal, and Busch Gardens because of their employee numbers and full-time inspectors. Later during the Q&A, DeSantis clarified that the exemption would still apply to the other theme park operators, as the new bill would apply only to theme park operators in special districts. (Meaning just Walt Disney World.)
After DeSantis was done with his prepared statement, Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Wilton Simpson spoke about the ride safety bill. He indicated that it’s his office that has a duty to inspect, and determine what to do if an individual is injured in an amusement park but that doesn’t currently happen with Walt Disney World.
According to Simpson, that doesn’t occur much in Florida, but the state does “have the right to inspect and decide when [a ride] can safely reopen when it does.” Simpson stated that the goal was to put everyone on a level playing field, and not exempt the big theme park operators an exemption.
Other individuals spoke after this, but nothing else of substance was said. Much of this was simply inflammatory grandstanding, with no bearing on the actual political or legal outcome of the proposed bills or development agreement between Walt Disney World and the former Reedy Creek board.
To that point, just as we’re not publishing unnecessarily incendiary remarks that are devoid of substance, so too are we going to refrain from offering commentary or inviting reader comments. In the last two posts, we’ve cautioned against jumping to premature conclusions or declaring victors because this standoff is incredibly multifaceted, involving the intersection of law and politics. The Reedy Creek saga alone involves myriad complex little-understood legal issues, and that’s before even arriving at the political angle.
Although certain aspects are ascertainable and relevant to the legal challenge and its likelihood of success, the eventual outcome as a whole is not. No one should pretend to know how it’ll play out from here. We’re going to take our own advice on that, and not try to play ‘inside baseball’ to understand the motivation for these moves, or the calculus for DeSantis and Disney going forward. If Walt Disney World does release a statement in response to that, we’ll update accordingly.