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Ron DeSantis' Board Rages Against Disney World After Legal Humiliation

Newsweek 3/30/2023 Ewan Palmer
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks about his new book ‘The Courage to Be Free’ in the Air Force One Pavilion at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on March 5, 2023 in Simi Valley, California. (R) Mickey Mouse in front of the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland Resort Paris. © Mario Tama/PASCAL DELLA ZUANA/Sygma/Getty Images Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks about his new book ‘The Courage to Be Free’ in the Air Force One Pavilion at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on March 5, 2023 in Simi Valley, California. (R) Mickey Mouse in front of the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland Resort Paris.

A group of conservatives handpicked by Governor Ron DeSantis to oversee the governance of Walt Disney World in Florida have lashed out after discovering their predecessors signed an agreement that strips the new board of most of its powers.

The five-person Central Florida Tourism Oversight District was brought in by DeSantis in February to replace the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which had allowed Disney to run as its own self-governing authority in Florida for more than 50 years.

The Republican governor overhauled how Disney could operate in the Sunshine State after the company spoke out against his so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill, which bans the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in certain grades at Florida schools.

It comes as part of a battle between conservatives and defenders over LGBTQ+ rights. Republicans in over two dozen states are trying to stop gender-affirming care for minors and drag shows in front of youngsters in steps they say are intended to protect children. Critics say such measures are harming all LGBTQ+ people, particularly vulnerable youths, and depriving them of their rights.


On Wednesday the five board members revealed that Disney and Reedy Creek had made an agreement on February 8 that hands control of the district's development rights and special privileges to the company—just weeks before DeSantis signed the bill setting up their oversight organization.

February's agreement means the board members can't take significant action without first getting approval from Disney.

"I cannot tell you the level of my disappointment in Disney. I thought so much better of them," board member Ron Peri said on Wednesday, according to Click Orlando.

"This essentially makes Disney the government. This board loses, for practical purposes, the majority of its ability to do anything beyond maintain the roads and maintain basic infrastructure."

David B. Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Akron in Ohio, said the incident is "embarrassing" for DeSantis and will give Donald Trump "material to poke fun at him."

"While he was publicly boasting about taking on and besting 'woke' Disney, DeSantis and his team were cleverly outmaneuvered at the last minute by Disney who was busy working quietly behind the scenes to ensure that it would maintain its autonomy," Cohen told Newsweek.

The board members, who found out about the agreement after their appointments, said they would be hiring lawyers to challenge it.

"We're going to have to deal with it and correct it," board member Brian Aungst said. "It's a subversion of the will of the voters and the legislature and the governor. It completely circumvents the authority of this board to govern."

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District said the agreement between Reedy Creek and Disney could last decades because it contains a rare royal lives clause, which means it remains valid until "21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants" of King Charles III.

Bridget Ziegler, a board member and the co-founder of conservative advocacy group Moms for Liberty, also hit out at the "arrogance of Disney" in a tweet.

"From ignoring parents and allowing radicals to sexualize our children, to now ignoring Florida taxpayers by sneaking in a last minute sweetheart development agreement, Disney has once again overplayed their hand in Florida," Ziegler wrote.

"We won't stand for this and we won't back down. If unlawful actions were taken, this development agreement will be nullified."

In a statement, Disney World said it had not done anything wrong by signing the agreement with Reedy Creek.

"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.

DeSantis' office said in a statement that it would support the board's attempts to challenge the February 8 agreement.

"The Executive Office of the Governor is aware of Disney's last-ditch efforts to execute contracts just before ratifying the new law that transfers rights and authorities from the former Reedy Creek Improvement District to Disney," DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said.

"An initial review suggests these agreements may have significant legal infirmities that would render the contracts void as a matter of law," she added. "We are pleased the new governor-appointed board retained multiple financial and legal firms to conduct audits and investigate Disney's past behavior."

Carlos Guillermo Smith, an activist and former member of the Florida House of Representatives, said DeSantis had been humiliated in his culture war battle against "woke" and Disney.

Smith, who was the first openly LGBTQ+ Latin person elected to the state legislature, tweeted: "Ronnie lost and was just stunningly outmaneuvered by the Mouse.

"Ron DeSantis invested nearly everything into promoting his narrative of how he stuck it to Disney for having the temerity to oppose his agenda.

"He wrote op-eds about it, bragged on Fox News and made it a central focus of his new book. That house of cards is now collapsing."

Newsweek reached out to the governor's office for comment.

Update 3/30/23, 1:32 p.m. ET: This article was updated with comment from David B. Cohen.

Update 3/30/23, 7:45 a.m. ET: This article was updated with additional background information.

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