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Disney Drops Federal Appeal in Florida Lawsuit, Ending DeSantis Fight

Disney dropped its appeal on Thursday in its First Amendment lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, officially ending the two-year battle sparked by the company’s opposition to the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law.

The move came a day after a state board approved a new 15-year development agreement, which will allow Disney to invest up to $17 billion to expand its Orlando theme parks.

“Walt Disney World is inextricably intertwined in the fabric of the state of Florida, and the success of Walt Disney World is the success of Central Florida and vice versa,” said Brian Aungst Jr., a member of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, at the meeting on Wednesday. “This agreement provides a lasting, sustainable and prosperous future for the district and for people of the state of Florida and for the Walt Disney Company.”

The governor and the entertainment giant are moving on from the bruising culture war fight that dominated headlines in 2022. The battle has left Disney in a weakened position, as it lost control over a nearly 40 square-mile area surrounding the parks, which it had enjoyed since 1967.

The development agreement allows Disney to build a fifth major theme park in Orlando, as well as up to two additional minor parks. It allows for the addition of more than 13,000 new hotel rooms.

Disney also pledged $10 million over 10 years toward affordable housing development, and the state board committed to provide infrastructure to support Disney’s expansion plans.

The settlement leaves in place a district court ruling rejecting Disney’s claim that DeSantis had violated its constitutional rights. Disney had alleged that DeSantis illegally retaliated for its opposition to the Parental Rights in Education law, which restricts classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, and had sought to rescind the state takeover.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor dismissed Disney’s First Amendment suit in January, finding that Florida had the power to revoke the district, and that its motives for doing so were irrelevant. At the time, Disney vowed to pursue an appeal, saying the case had “serious implications for the rule of law.”

“If left unchallenged, this would set a dangerous precedent and give license to states to weaponize their official powers to punish the expression of political viewpoints they disagree with,” a Disney spokesman said at the time.

Disney and DeSantis settled most of their conflicts in March, as state lawsuits were dismissed and the two sides committed to working on the new development plan. Disney agreed to suspend briefing on the federal appeal pending a resolution of the development issue.

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District — the state-run board that replaced the Disney entity — voted 5-0 on Wednesday night to approve a new development agreement.

With the agreement in hand, Disney notified the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday that it was dismissing the case.

“All parties to this appeal hereby stipulate to dismissal of the appeal with prejudice,” the notice states.

Disney had attempted to secure its development rights in February 2023, passing development agreements just before the DeSantis-backed board took control. The new board and the legislature moved to rescind those agreements, and under the settlement Disney agreed that they were null and void.

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