Disney, District Settle Lawsuit

Disney, District Settle Lawsuit

By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District have reached a legal settlement that includes nullifying controversial development agreements that the entertainment giant entered with the former Reedy Creek Improvement District.

The settlement was announced Wednesday and approved by the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board, which was created last year by the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis. The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District replaced the decades-old Reedy Creek district, which had close ties to Disney.

The deal ends an Orange County circuit-court lawsuit that came amid a feud between DeSantis and Disney over the company’s opposition to a 2022 state law that restricted instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. Disney filed a separate federal lawsuit and appealed after a U.S. district judge in January dismissed that case. The appeal remains pending.

Walt Disney World Resort President Jeff Vahle said in a prepared statement the company was “pleased to put an end to all litigation pending in state court.”

“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,” Vahle said.

A copy of the settlement was not immediately available.

The district provides government services for a swath of Central Florida that includes Disney properties. Disney reached development agreements with the outgoing Reedy Creek board shortly before the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board took over.

In the lawsuit, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District sought a ruling that the development agreements were “null and void.”

DeSantis, appearing Wednesday at the Orange County State Attorney’s Office for a bill-signing event, said his actions on changing Reedy Creek and the education issue “have been vindicated.”

“Going forward, we’re going to continue to govern with the best interests of the state of Florida,” DeSantis said. “So, I’m glad that they were able to do that settlement on those eleventh-hour (development) covenants and restrictions.”

The state in the 1960s created the Reedy Creek district. But in pushing to revamp the district, DeSantis said “allowing a corporation to control its own government is bad policy.”

Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board member Charbel Barakat said Wednesday the district is “eager to work with Disney and all other businesses to make the country’s tourism destination famous for a second reason, which is good government.”

The settlement also came as the district board on Wednesday appointed Stephanie Kopelousos to the $400,000-a-year position as district administrator. Kopelousos was recommended by DeSantis and had worked for him as legislative and intergovernmental affairs director.

Paul Huck, an attorney for the district, outlined the settlement to the board and also said Disney agreed to withdraw public-records requests tied to the litigation. Among other things, Huck said Disney agreed to work with the district to review a 2020 comprehensive plan for the region.

In the separate federal lawsuit, Disney alleged state officials unconstitutionally retaliated against the company over its opposition to the education law. The company’s appeal is pending at the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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