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In Florida, there's détente in the battle between Disney and Gov. Ron DeSantis

The Walt Disney Company and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have called off their lawsuit stemming from a yearlong legal dispute. It involves the district that's home to Disney's central Florida resort.
Walt Disney World Resort via Get
The Walt Disney Company and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have called off their lawsuit stemming from a yearlong legal dispute. It involves the district that's home to Disney's central Florida resort.

MIAMI — The Walt Disney Company and a board appointed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis say they've reached a settlement that resolves a yearlong legal dispute.

It involves the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which encompasses the 40-square-mile property that's home to the Walt Disney World resort. DeSantis and Republican lawmakers created a new board for the district after they approved a law revoking Disney's self-governing status.

The settlement resolveslawsuits over a last-minute agreement Disney signed with its old board last year before it was dissolved by DeSantis and the Florida Legislature. That agreement would have taken power away from the new board and reserved for Disney all decisions concerning development at the theme parks. Under the settlement, that deal is now "null and void."

At a meeting Wednesday, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board said it will now work with Disney to update the district's 2020 comprehensive plan.

But a little later in the day, at a news conference in Orlando, DeSantis took aim at critics in the media and elsewhere who predicted that Disney would win its lawsuits and take back its self-governing status.

"The reality is here we are a year later and not one of them has succeeded," DeSantis said. "Every action we have taken has been upheld in full. And the state's better off for it."

It's the apparent end of a political battle that began in 2022 when DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Act. The law, dubbed "Don't Say Gay" by critics, restricts how sexual orientation and gender identity are discussed in the schools. Disney's former CEO Bob Chapek spoke out against the law and said he'd work to overturn it. That angered DeSantis, who then worked with Republican lawmakers to pass a measure revoking Disney's self-governing status.

DeSantis appointed a new board to oversee the district. Disney challenged the move in federal court but lost. It's appealing that lawsuit. But Wednesday, Disney and the DeSantis-appointed board announced they had settled all the lawsuits pending in state court and are ready to move forward together.

"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," Walt Disney World Resort President Jeff Vahle said.

Another factor in the settlement appears to be two appointments also announced Wednesday. DeSantis named a new member to the district's board, Craig Mateer. Mateer formerly owned a tourism-related company in Orlando. At DeSantis' recommendation, the board appointed Stephanie Kopelousos as the new district administrator. Kopelousos had served as a former Clay County manager and was legislative and intergovernmental affairs director for DeSantis.

With the settlement, Disney is indicating that the current structure, operating under a board appointed by Florida's governor, is one it can work with. Disney CEO Bob Iger has announced plans to spend at least $30 billion to upgrade its theme parks over the next decade, including some $17 billion in Orlando.

Rick Foglesong, a retired professor and author of Married to the Mouse, which chronicles Disney's relationship with Florida, says the settlement is a win for both Disney and DeSantis. "I think they both needed to escape from the imbroglio in which they found themselves, that it wasn't working for either one of them."

Foglesong says the settlement clears the way for the expansion plans to go forward. Disney, he says, "needed to continue to invest here without appearing weak, as if they were caving to DeSantis. They need to keep tourists coming back. They need to reinvest in the parks."

In recent months, DeSantis has also indicated that he was also ready to move on from the fight. In campaign speeches in his run for the Republican presidential nomination, DeSantis often brought up his fight with Disney. Once that candidacy ended, he began moving to put the issue behind him. In a state where tourism accounts for nearly 10% of jobs, fighting with the operator of one of the state's most popular destinations may not have been seen as a winning long-term strategy.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.