Disney plan calls for investing up to B in Orlando, DeSantis-backed district says

Disney plan calls for investing up to $17B in Orlando, DeSantis-backed district says

Florida’s tourism oversight district is poised to adopt a new development agreement with The Walt Disney Co. that officials say will bring up $17 billion of investments at Disney World over the next 10 to 20 years.

The district’s board will take up the plan on Wednesday, addressing a key source of contention between Gov. Ron DeSantis and Disney.

“With Walt Disney World’s substantial investments, we anticipate economic growth, job creation, and support for local businesses, alongside environmental stewardship and workforce housing initiatives, benefitting Central Florida’s community,” Stephanie Kopelousos, administrator of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, said in a prepared statement.

In the 15-year agreement, Disney pledges to fund at least $10 million in affordable housing projects and create a local business hiring program that would award a minimum of 50% of the value of all construction work to Florida-based businesses.

District officials say they have agreed to continue providing infrastructure to support Disney’s growth. Both parties would have to consent to changes to the plan, according to the district.

Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The agreement covers about 17,300 acres owned by Disney, according to a legal announcement. It authorizes a maximum of five major theme parks, one more than Disney operates in Central Florida now. Company officials have not announced a fifth theme park.

It also allows a maximum of five minor theme parks, such as a water park, nearly 1.3 million square feet of office space, 1.7 million square feet of restaurant/retail space and 53,467 hotel rooms.

The proposed plan comes after Disney and the district agreed in March to settle a lawsuit in state court over development issues.

The settlement said development agreements and covenants approved by a Disney-friendly board shortly before a state takeover in February 2023 are null and void.

The district agreed to “consult with Disney” while reviewing and amending a 2020 plan, according to the settlement.

Disney recently announced it will invest $60 billion into its cruise lines and theme parks around the world, setting off speculation that the entertainment giant could be eyeing a fifth Orlando theme park. Disney’s competitor, Universal Orlando, is set to open a new theme park, Epic Universe, in 2025.

After the settlement, both sides signaled they were ready to work together on economic development.

The proposed plan seems to be a positive for Central Florida, said Richard Foglesong, a Rollins College professor and author of the book “Married to the Mouse” on Disney World’s origin story.

“We’re possibly seeing CFTOD [Central Florida Tourism Oversight District] starting to do what they’re supposed to do: building things, not just complaining about things,” he said. “Central Florida will be better off for it.”

State Sen. Linda Stewart, a critic of the district, said her concerns have lessened as of late, and the development agreement appears to be another sign of improved relations between Disney and state officials.

“Things have been a little smoother over there,” the Orlando Democrat said. “The board hasn’t decided on their own without consultation we are doing this and that. That’s not what is happening now. There is more cooperation.”

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District has played a starring role in DeSantis’ nationally watched battle with Disney. Formerly known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, Disney used it for decades to effectively self-govern its Central Florida theme parks and resorts. A 1967 arrangement allowed Disney to elect the district’s five-member board, giving it control.

The Disney-DeSantis feud started in 2022 when the company opposed what critics called the “don’t say gay” law, which limited classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation.

DeSantis attacked Disney as a “woke” corporation and vowed to end what he called “special privileges” the company enjoyed in Florida. Disney vowed to work to get the law overturned and paused its political giving in Florida.

Last year, the Legislature upended that arrangement and gave the governor the power to appoint the district’s board members. In February 2023, DeSantis replaced Disney loyalists on the board with Republican allies.

When the new DeSantis-aligned board members took over, they discovered their predecessors had approved agreements and covenants limiting the new board’s authority over development. That sparked a power struggle and led to the lawsuit seeking to undo the agreements.

A separate lawsuit filed by Disney against DeSantis and state officials is pending in federal court. Disney asked an appeals court for a delay in that case to “facilitate” negotiations.

The deadline to file an opening brief was pushed back from April 17 to June 17.