TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The new board controlling the special district that oversees Walt Disney World was stripped of nearly all its powers through an agreement made before the state took control of the district from Disney, lawyers for the new board said Wednesday.
In February, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law stripping the entertainment giant of its control over the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special tax district and governance jurisdiction which had been controlled by Disney since 1968. The new law changed the district’s name to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and gave the governor power to appoint a new Board of Supervisors.
The state’s takeover also came months after the governor clashed with Disney executives over the company’s opposition to Florida’s Parental Rights In Education legislation, or the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill that later became law.
DeSantis picked five allies, including a donor, an evangelical minister and Bridget Ziegler, a Sarasota school board member and the co-founder of the conservative group Moms for Liberty, to oversee operations at Disney’s properties.
At the time, Jeff Vahle, the president of Walt Disney World Resort, said the company intended to “work within this new framework.”
During a legal presentation on Wednesday, the board was informed by its special counsel that before the state’s takeover, the previous board had approved a series of agreements to transfer nearly all the district’s powers to Disney for the next 30 years.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. The timing, circumstances and terms of the deal show me the intent was to circumvent the enabling act of this district and to bind the hands of this board and future boards,” said special counsel Daniel Langley.
Under the terms of the agreement, the new district is prohibited from using the name “Disney” or any symbols associated with the theme park resort without the company’s permission, nor can it use the likeness of Mickey Mouse, other Disney characters or other intellectual property in any manner. The company can sue for damages for any violations, and the agreement is in effect until perpetuity, according to the declaration.
If the agreement is deemed to violate rules against perpetuity, it will be in effect until 21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of England’s King Charles III, the declaration said.
“We’re going to have to deal with it and correct it,” board member Brian Aungst said Wednesday. “It’s a subversion of the will of the voters and the Legislature and the governor. It completely circumvents the authority of this board to govern.”
In a statement, Disney said all agreements were above board and took place in public.
“All agreements signed between Disney and the District were appropriate, and were discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums in compliance with Florida’s Government in the Sunshine law,” the statement said.
The new board voted Wednesday to hire two new law firms to help them challenge the agreements.
Chairman Martin Garcia suggested the legal challenge will face an uphill battle and could go before the Supreme Court.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.