By Mike Schneider
New supervisors leading Disney World’s revamped governing body said Wednesday that they had good intentions about collaborating with the company after they were appointed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis but felt betrayed when Disney signed agreements with their predecessors stripping them of most of their authority.
“Our board wanted to work with Disney, but Disney decided they didn’t want to work with us. It was Disney’s way or the highway,” Martin Garcia, chair of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, said at the start of a board meeting.
In response, he had a warning about what the DeSantis-appointed supervisors who now oversee Disney World’s vast Florida holdings might try to achieve in an evolving showdown between the governor and Disney: “Nothing is off the table at this point.”
Among the changes board members made Wednesday were eliminating a planning agency and making the board responsible for future planning. They also said that in the future, they might consider acquiring more land under eminent domain, monetizing the district’s assets, banning COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates, asserting the board's “superior authority” over the district and exploring the construction of affordable housing for Disney workers on Disney World property.
Disney World required masks and had social distancing protocols in place in 2020 when it reopened after closing for several months in an effort to stop COVID-19's spread. DeSantis has been a fierce opponent of virus mask and vaccine mandates and has petitioned the state Supreme Court to convene a grand jury to investigate “any and all wrongdoing” with respect to the COVID-19 vaccines.
Wednesday's meeting continued a battle pitting prospective presidential candidate DeSantis and Republican state lawmakers against Disney that started last year when the entertainment giant publicly opposed what critics call the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation barring school instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. In retaliation, Florida lawmakers passed, and DeSantis signed, legislation reorganizing Disney World’s company-controlled government, allowing the governor to appoint the five members of the Board of Supervisors. Disney previously had controlled the board for its 55-year existence.
Last month, the new DeSantis-appointees claimed their Disney-controlled predecessors pulled a fast one by stripping the new board of most powers and giving Disney control over design and construction at the theme park resort before the new members could take their seats.
At Wednesday's meeting, Garcia said the new supervisors last week discovered another “11th-hour agreement” between Disney and the previous supervisors that allows the company to set its own utility rates.
DeSantis and state lawmakers ratcheted up the pressure on Disney on Monday by proposing upcoming legislation that would require state inspections of Disney rides, which would be an unprecedented move since Florida's largest theme park operators have been able to conduct their own inspections. The lawmakers also plan to consider legislation that would revoke the agreements between the previous board supervisors and Disney.
Republican state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia said he had a message for Disney: “You are not going to win this fight. This governor is.”
Disney has said all agreements made with the previous board were legal and approved in a public forum.
Disney CEO Bob Iger earlier this month said that any actions against the company that threaten jobs or expansion at its Florida resort was not only “anti-business" but "anti-Florida.”
The new supervisors have hired a team of high-powered lawyers that includes a former Florida Supreme Court justice to possibly challenge the agreements between Disney and the old board. At Wednesday's meeting, the attorneys outlined their arguments for why the deals were illegal, claiming they weren't properly noticed and were self-dealing. They also said a district can't confer governmental powers to a private entity.
“Disney engaged in a caper worthy of Scrooge McDuck,” said David Thompson, one of the attorneys.
Updated with the latest details.