Disney ends its dispute with DeSantis over resort development

In a surprising turn of events, the Walt Disney Company abandoned its fight against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for control of the planned $17 billion development of the Disney World theme park complex near Orlando.

Disney’s capitulation followed a legal setback. In January, a federal judge dismissed a Disney lawsuit alleging that Mr. DeSantis and his allies violated the First Amendment by taking over a special tax district that includes the company’s 25,000-acre Florida resort where around 75,000 people are employed.

Under a settlement announced Wednesday, Disney agreed to suspend — but not drop entirely — its appeal of that ruling while negotiating a new comprehensive growth plan with tax district officials. Disney also agreed to stop fighting the tax district in state court, with both sides “deciding to move forward in a spirit of cooperation,” according to the six-page agreement.

“We are pleased to bring an end to all litigation pending in state court in Florida,” Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World, said in a statement. He added that the agreement “opens a new chapter of constructive cooperation” and would allow the company to continue investing in the resort. As part of the settlement, the county agreed not to “prohibit or impede” long-term environmental permits granted to Disney.

Mr. DeSantis celebrated the agreement, saying the state had been “vindicated” for all its actions.

“A year ago people were trying to act as if all these legal maneuvers were all going to succeed, and the reality is that, a year later, we haven’t succeeded in any of them,” Mr. DeSantis told reporters in Orlando. “All the measures we took have been fully vindicated and the state is better off for it.”

The agreement came after a noticeable leadership change in the district. Two people Disney found particularly hostile – founding Chairman Martin Garcia and Glen Gilzean, a senior administrator – resigned earlier this month. The typically outspoken Mr. Garcia, whose term would have lasted until 2027, made no statement. Mr. Gilzean, who was caught in a situation Ethics scandal In an unrelated previous government job, he was named elections director for Orange County, which includes Orlando.

Mr. DeSantis replaced Mr. Garcia with Craig Mateer, a hotel manager and donor to the governor’s recent presidential campaign. Stephanie Kopelousos, a former director of legislative affairs for the governor who also worked on his presidential campaign, was hired as the new administrator on Wednesday. Ms. Kopelousos worked closely with Disney lobbyists while in Tallahassee; Three years ago, she helped free Disney from a restrictive social media law.

Disney and Mr. DeSantis, who ended his campaign for president in January, have been feuding for two years over Disney World, which attracts an estimated 50 million visitors annually. Angered by Disney’s criticism of a Florida education law that opponents called anti-gay – and seizing the opportunity to score political points with his supporters – Mr. DeSantis took over the tax district, appointed a new board and ended the company’s long-standing ability to do so do self-governing Disney World as if it were a county.

Before the acquisition took effect, however, Disney signed contracts – quietly but in publicly announced meetings – to set development plans.

Created in 1967, the taxing district was a crucial tool in the development of Disney World, giving Disney unusual control over building permits, fire protection, policing, road maintenance and development planning. Today, Disney World includes four theme parks, two water parks and 18 Disney-owned hotels with a total of 267 swimming pools.

The growth plan that Disney laid out before Mr. DeSantis and his allies took over the district — and which is now being renegotiated — includes the possible construction of 14,000 additional hotel rooms, a fifth major theme park and three small parks. The company said it has earmarked more than $17 billion in spending to fuel the resort’s growth over the next decade. This expansion would create an estimated 13,000 jobs within the company.

Disney called Mr. DeSantis “anti-business” for his campaign against the company and last year pulled the plug on an office complex it was planning to build in Orlando for about $1 billion. That would have created more than 2,000 Disney jobs in the area, with an average salary of $120,000, according to an estimate from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

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