June 22, 2024

Disney & Florida Reach Lawsuit Settlement

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Walt Disney World and the Central Florida Tourism District have reached a settlement agreement in the lawsuits regarding, among other things, the company's development agreements with the former Reedy Creek Improvement District. This post outlines




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Walt Disney World and the Central Florida Tourism District have reached a settlement agreement in the lawsuits regarding, among other things, the company’s development agreements with the former Reedy Creek Improvement District. This post outlines terms of the deal plus brief commentary.

As you might recall, Walt Disney World’s federal lawsuit against Governor Ron DeSantis, Secretary of Florida’s Department of Commerce, and all members of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD) was dismissed earlier this year. Disney already filed a notice of appeal over that ruling in the federal case.

Fast-forward to late March, and the CFTOD Board of Supervisors announced during their Wednesday, March 27 meeting that they have reached a settlement with The Walt Disney Company in the state lawsuit. The settlement was voted on and approved by the Board of Supervisors during that meeting, which ends most of the litigation between Disney and Florida, with only a few lingering loose ends (for now).

The settlement agreement stipulates that development agreements and covenants approved by the Reedy Creek Improvement District shortly before a state takeover a year ago are null and void. Both the CFTOD and Disney will dismiss all claims and counterclaims, meaning that Disney drops a countersuit seeking public records from the CFTOD Board of Supervisors.

For its part, Disney agrees not to contest the District’s assessment that the 2032 Comprehensive Plan is now null and void. This means that the 2020 Comprehensive Plan will remain in effect (for now). The CFTOD agrees to consult with Disney while reviewing and amending the current plan and creating a new comprehensive plan.

The labor services agreement between the District and Reedy Creek Energy Services will end in 2028. Disney owns the long-term mitigation credits and the District will not impede on those credits. Both parties agree not to contest the actions of the Reedy Creek Improvement District from prior to the creation and appointment of the CFTOD.

Pursuant to this settlement agreement, Disney will also seek permission from a federal appeals court to pause its federal court case in light of anticipated negotiations of a new development agreement between the company and CFTOD. This suggests that a mutually agreed-upon development agreement is the last step before all outstanding litigation is resolved.

The Board of Supervisors also voted to name Stephanie Kopelousos as District Administrator, rather than launching a search for a replacement. The Board has seen a shuffling of positions in recent weeks and months, with open spots resulting from resignations and members leaving for greener pastures (better appointments).

As District Administrator, Kopelousos replaces Glen Gilzean, who DeSantis appointed to serve as the interim supervisor of elections in Orange County. Kopelousos has a long resume of government and political work, and has worked with Walt Disney World in the past on legislation that has been beneficial to the company.

Kopelousos also headed the Florida Department of Transportation and as county manager of Clay County. Her letter to the Board of Supervisors highlighted her background in county management, strategic planning, and infrastructure development. She seems to be well-qualified for the position. Given that she’s worked with Disney in the past and is qualified, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she’s a ‘compromise candidate’ between Disney and DeSantis.

In addition to the new District Administrator, Governor DeSantis appointed Craig Mateer to the empty CFTOD Board of Supervisors seat vacated by Martin Garcia, who was Chairman of the Board until his resignation a few weeks ago. This is also notable because Mateer is an Orlando-area hospitality entrepreneur who previously partnered with Disney. Mateer founded the Bags Inc. luggage handling business…so let the rumors start flying that his Mateer’s appointment means a return of Disney’s Magical Express. (I’m kidding. It does not mean that.)

Following the news of a settlement, Walt Disney World President Jeff Vahle released the following statement: “We are pleased to put an end to all litigation pending in state court in Florida between Disney and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. 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.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis spokesperson Bryan Griffin also released a statement: “No corporation should be its own government. Moving forward, we stand ready to work with Disney and the District to help promote economic growth, family-friendly tourism, and accountable government in Central Florida.”

Turning to commentary, I’m glad this is seemingly over. Sure, there’s still the federal appeal that’s outstanding, but this settlement indicates that both parties are ready to move on. Once things are squared away with the comprehensive plan, development agreement, and whatever else the CFTOD and Disney need to work towards, the appeal will eventually be withdrawn.

Beyond that, nothing to add about the terms of the agreement. The “great” thing about a settlement is that everyone can claim that they’ve won and the other side has lost. Critics of Disney can continue denouncing the company, arguing that they were outwitted and outmatched, terrified of what ongoing litigation would uncover. Opponents of the CFTOD can do likewise, asserting that there must’ve been something in the public records case that the Board of Supervisors didn’t want seeing the light of day. Everyone you like wins, everyone you dislike loses.

Our view is that a settlement is a win for everyone involved and a loss for no one. We’ve been saying for a while that it’s mutually advantageous for both parties to work together and put this in the rearview mirror. It was one of the major points in last year’s post, What Bob Iger Needs to Fix at Walt Disney World & Beyond in 2024 (under “Quiet Controversy”). Our perspective has absolutely nothing to do with matters of law.

Instead, that Walt Disney World continuing to pursue this is bad for business (see Disney’s Reputation Falls Further). That, at this point, they are not “winning over” new customers by continuing to engage in culture wars, and are instead reminding ones they’ve alienated of that. That a lot of Disney’s past success has come as a cultural unifier that has found a way to be trusted by and resonate with people of all persuasions and walks of life.

I know many of you disagree with this because you’ve said as much in the past. That’s fair enough. This is a big legal question with significant stakes and a lot of entrenched opinions about Florida and/or Disney overstepping. Personally, I think it’s possible to believe all of that and also that it benefits no one for the state and its biggest business to be engaged in a standoff, embroiled in controversy, and wasting millions of dollars on a legal fight. The only people winning in this matter are the lawyers and the rage farmers who traffic in divisiveness.

Ultimately, I look at Disney’s previous standoff with another state as illustrative for a good shoe on the other foot example. It’s easy to forget, but Bob Iger resigned from California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Economic Recovery Task Force back in October 2020 due to tensions between that state and Disneyland. That was a bitter battle at the time, and one that cost Disney dearly in not being able to reopen its Anaheim parks.

Since then, Iger has made inroads improving Disney’s relationship with California. As a result, Newsom has become an ally to Disney, making overtures to get the company to increase its presence in the state. The next step out west is getting DisneylandForward approved, which should happen later this month. Disney has done a great job of community outreach in both the City of Anaheim and the state, and now they’re going to get what they want as a result of that bridge-building.

Some of you will argue “that’s different because ___.” Our view is that, regardless of how you assign blame, the end result was exactly the same in that it was “not good” for Disney. It definitely “is good” that Disney has done the hard work of repairing the relationship, irrespective of whether the company was right or wrong in the first place.

That is precisely what I’ve wanted to see happen in Florida. It doesn’t matter what opinions you hold of Bob Iger or Ron DeSantis. That doesn’t change the fact that Walt Disney World is absolutely huge for Florida’s economic engine. It is mutually advantageous for the company and the state to repair their relationship and build towards a better future for both.

Disney wants to invest billions of dollars into Florida and it’s safe to assume the state wants that, too. That’s why we hoped after the federal dismissal and appeal, our hope was that Team DeSantis and Team Disney were working behind closed doors to fix things and move forward. Everyone loses and no one wins when these states and one of their largest businesses are at odds.

That brings us to the final and most important point. This being in the rearview mirror paves the way for investment in Walt Disney World. As has been discussed time and time again, the company plans to spend $60 billion over the next decade on Disney Parks & Resorts. Of that amount, it’s expected that $17 billion is earmarked for Walt Disney World.

There have been some concerns in the past that Disney is withholding announcements and construction in Florida until there’s resolution and clarity about the future of CFTOD. (For what it’s worth, the same is happening in California with DisneylandForward’s approval.) This settlement seems to offer that, resolving yet another threshold issue before a potentially blockbuster slate of 2024 D23 Expo announcements for Parks & Resorts. Here’s hoping that Jeff Vahle is right, and this begins a “new chapter” of constructive collaboration between the parties…and literal construction by Walt Disney World!

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

Any reaction to the latest season of the Reedy Creek Improvement District drama? Hope this is the end of the road for the lawsuits? Ready to focus again on the fun of the parks? Keep the comments civil, and avoid personal attacks or perpetuating pointless culture wars. Respectfully debating the change is totally fine, but don’t attack others or troll for controversy. That’s why Facebook was invented.




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