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Disney Wins Approval of $17B Development Deal With DeSantis Truce

Disney Wins Approval of $17B Development Deal With DeSantis Truce

Disney and Gov. Ron DeSantis have put the finishing touches on a deal to end a contentious legal battle for control of the district that oversees development around its theme parks.

On Thursday, the entertainment giant dropped its appeal of a ruling dismissing its First Amendment lawsuit against the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District over claims that the group illegally voided an agreement that allegedly transferred certain powers of Disney’s now-dissolved special tax district back to the company. The move followed approval of $17 billion in planned development at Walt Disney World near Orlando that will bring a fifth theme park and three smaller parks to the resort.

With the deal, Florida lawmakers can no longer threaten to undermine Disney’s plans for growth, like DeSantis did in 2021 in retaliation for the company’s public opposition to a state law that restricted instruction in the classroom on gender identity and sexual orientation. But it also signals a new future for Disney in which it can’t essentially govern itself within the borders of its resort.

Brian Aungst Jr., a member of the district’s board, said on Wednesday when the development plan was greenlit that Disney World is “inextricably intertwined with in the fabric of the state of Florida” and that the “success of Walt Disney World is the success of Central Florida.”

Under the deal, which lasts until 2040, Disney will invest up to $17 billion over the next ten to twenty years. The expansion includes nearly 14,000 hotel rooms and 270,000 retails stores and restaurants, as well as another major theme park and two smaller parks. The company will keep the ability to control building heights.

“It’s no secret that Disney is not only an economic engine for Florida but, more importantly, to the nearly 450,000 Hospitality employees across the central Florida region,” said Robert Agrusa, president of the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association, at the approval hearing.

Robert Earl, chief executive of Planet Hollywood, stressed the significance of Disney’s partnership with the state, which the company said will bring another 13,000 jobs to the area.

“It’s not just when the new attractions or the new parks open,” he said. “It’s the planning that begins immediately everywhere. It’s the airlines that will start considering increasing their existing flights. It’s the regions around the globe that [will] decide if they’re going to offer new travel routes. It’s the hotels that will be needed to provide the extra accommodation. It’s the big picture impact: more housing needed, more jobs on offer and a general influx into the whole area.”

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At least half of all project spending must go to Florida businesses, according to the agreement. Disney, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, also committed to funding affordable housing, earmarking at least $10 million over the next decade.

The development agreement stipulates that the district, which agreed to make improvement to infrastructure throughout the duration of the deal, must provide the public services and facilities, including transportation, sewage and health systems, necessary to support Disney’s investment. The company will donate up to 100 acres for the construction of infrastructure projects, according to the deal.

The truce ends nearly two years of legal wrangling, including a lawsuit accusing Disney of covertly cobbling together a “series of eleventh-hour deals” to illicitly retain development powers after DeSantis assumed control. The settlement of that case, which noted that the deals are “null and void,” came after a federal judge dismissed Disney’s First Amendment lawsuit after concluding that the statute granting the governor the authority to appoint every member of the district’s governing body is “facially constitutional” and cannot be challenged with a free speech claim.

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