Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Disney were at each other’s throats. Now Disney is dropping its lawsuit and the governor is putting up a technocrat to oversee the theme park’s governance as tensions cool.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and The Walt Disney Company are dialing back tensions after a yearslong fight. | John Raoux/AP

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Walt Disney Company were at war when he was running for president. Now that he’s back in Florida, both sides are trying to find a way to let it go.

Disney on Wednesday reached a settlement in Florida and will no longer seek to retain its self-governance of Walt Disney World, a stunning turn in a battle with DeSantis that stretched more than two years.

The settlement in state court — and DeSantis’ appointment of a new, technocratic administrator to the governing board overseeing the land surrounding the famous theme park — starts to put to rest a bitter feud that began after Disney publicly opposed the Parental Rights in Education Act, a bill it derided as “Don’t Say Gay” because it forbade instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools.

In retaliation, DeSantis and the GOP-controlled Legislature took over Disney’s governing district, essentially taking away a decadeslong special arrangement that allowed Disney to self-govern.

Details of the settlement filed in state court lawsuit were presented Wednesday during the meeting of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board, which is composed of DeSantis-appointed officials to oversee the area. The company considers “null and void” a maneuver it made in early 2023 to hold control over the land in perpetuity in a bid to circumvent the new board’s authority. Disney also agreed to dismiss a lawsuit over public records.

“We’re proud of the landmark work the District has accomplished and look forward to what lies ahead,” Charbel Barakat, the vice chair of the oversight district, said in a statement. “With this agreement, we’re eager to work with Disney and other businesses within Central Florida to make our destination known for world-class attractions and accountable governance.”

The board agreed to the settlement terms during Wednesday’s meeting. DeSantis, who in the past and on the campaign trail had railed against Disney, said on Wednesday that all the state’s actions have been “vindicated” so far and noted that Florida has been largely successful at defending its actions in court. And he said that the creation of a new board to oversee the area made sure that the decisions were made in the “best interest” of the state.

But he also sounded more conciliatory that he has in the past, and said that the battles were pushed by Disney corporate officers in California and not Florida. He pointed out that the state board and Disney plan to negotiate a new development agreement for the district. DeSantis also urged Disney to consider expanding its footprint in central Florida to match a dramatic expansion recently announced by theme park rival Universal.

“This is moving forward,” DeSantis said. “I think that’s what the company wants to do.”

Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World Resort, said in a statement that the company was “pleased” to end the state court lawsuit.

“This agreement opens a new chapter of constructive engagement with the new leadership of the district and serves the interests of all parties by enabling significant continued investment and the creation of thousands of direct and indirect jobs and economic opportunity in the state,” he said.

In November, Disney released a report touting how much it helped Florida’s economy, as part of a broader effort to send the message to state lawmakers that it created business, tax revenue and jobs. It also has started dangling plans to grow, saying that if the environment was right in states like Florida, it would expand its parks.

Executives have specifically said they’re preparing to “turbocharge” Disney parks and experiences across the globe, with $60 billion over the next decade.

The news of the settlement came right around the time that the five-member board decided to install Stephanie Kopelousos, a new DeSantis-recommended administrator who is widely viewed by Tallahassee insiders as favorable to the entertainment giant.

POLITICO previously reported that the appointment was considered to be an olive branch by the governor because she is seen as qualified for the job.

Kopelousos used to be intergovernment and legislative affairs director for the governor. She has a long public service record on Capitol Hill, in Tallahassee and at the county level, and most recently worked for the DeSantis presidential campaign.

She’s also far from a knee-jerk, flaming-throwing Disney critic. Before the feud, Kopelousos wrote a carve-out in a 2021 bill for companies that own theme parks that otherwise aimed to crack down on Big Tech over allegations that they censored conservatives, per Seeking Rents. The move helped Disney, which owns Walt Disney World and a Disney+ streaming service.

During a board meeting on Wednesday, she pledged to “foster collaboration, drive innovation and most importantly ensure that we are the premier tourism destination in the country.”

In January, a federal judge tossed out a separate lawsuit filed against DeSantis and the board, saying Disney lacked standing and jurisdiction in arguing that actions pushed by DeSantis were retaliatory and violated the First Amendment rights of the company. The company had appealed that decision, and the settlement agreement reached Wednesday said Disney will ask to delay that case “pending negotiations among other matters of a new development agreement between Disney and the District.”

Source: Politico

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