A board appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida to oversee government services at Disney World voted on Wednesday to nullify two agreements that gave The Walt Disney Company vast control over expansion at the 25,000-acre resort complex.
The five-member board voted after its general counsel, Daniel Langley, presented evidence of what he called “self-dealing” and “procedural unconscionability” by Disney in pushing through the agreements earlier this year. Mr. Langley and another board lawyer said Disney violated Florida law in multiple ways, including by failing to fully notify the public of the actions it took.
“What they created is an absolute legal mess,” Martin Garcia, the board chairman, said of Disney during the meeting. “It will not work.”
Disney had no immediate comment.
The nullification — the latest in a string of actions against Disney by Mr. DeSantis and his allies — is likely to result in legal fireworks. Disney, the state’s largest taxpayer, has signaled a willingness to fight any attempt to revoke the agreements, which it contends were done in compliance with Florida law. One of the agreements gives Disney the ability to build 14,000 additional hotel rooms, a fifth theme park and three smaller parks. The other restricts the use of abutting land; no strip clubs, for instance.
Disney pushed through the agreements in early February — in public meetings advertised in The Orlando Sentinel — as the Florida Legislature, at the urging of Mr. DeSantis, looked for ways to curtail the company’s autonomy. Ultimately, lawmakers decided to allow the governor to appoint an oversight board for a special tax district that encompasses Disney World. The state previously allowed Disney to select the board members.
When the appointees reported for duty last month, they were outraged to discover that the previous, Disney-controlled board had approved the development agreement and restrictive covenants, limiting the new board’s power for decades to come.
Mr. DeSantis, a leading Republican presidential contender although he has not officially declared that he is running, reacted with fury. He suggested a variety of potential punitive actions against Disney, including reappraising the value of the resort for property tax levies and developing land near the entrances to the resort. “Maybe create a state park, maybe try to do more amusement parks — someone even said, like, maybe you need another state prison,” he said at an April 17 news conference.
He also said an effort was underway to give the state new authority over ride safety inspections at Disney World, as well as its 15-mile monorail transportation system, which carries an estimated 150,000 passengers a day.
Mr. DeSantis and his allies have repeatedly characterized their actions as simply putting Disney on “level playing ground” with other theme park operators in the state. In reality, they are doing the opposite. Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Legoland do not have oversight boards controlled by the governor. Based on the governor’s comments, the state’s other large theme parks would not be subject to additional safety inspections — only Disney World.
Mr. DeSantis and Disney have been sparring for more than a year over the special tax district that encompasses Disney World, which employs 75,000 people and attracts 50 million visitors annually. The district, created in 1967 southwest of Orlando, effectively turned the property into its own county, giving Disney unusual control over fire protection, policing, waste management, energy generation, road maintenance, bond issuance and development planning. (Florida has hundreds of similar special tax districts. One covers The Villages, a huge senior-living community northwest of Orlando. Another covers Daytona International Speedway and the surrounding area.)
Last year, under pressure from its employees, Disney criticized a contentious Florida education law and halted political donations in the state — landing in the cross hairs of Mr. DeSantis, who put a plan in motion to revoke Disney World’s self-governing privileges. The education law, called Parental Rights in Education, prohibits classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity for students through the third grade. Opponents labeled it “Don’t Say Gay.” The DeSantis administration recently expanded the ban through grade 12.
Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, has characterized Mr. DeSantis as “anti-business” and “anti-Florida” for his actions. Mr. Iger has also signaled that future investment in Disney World could be at risk if the governor continued to use Disney as a political punching bag; the company has earmarked more than $17 billion in spending at the resort over the next decade, growth that would create an estimated 13,000 jobs at the company.
Disney paid and collected a total of $1.2 billion in state and local taxes in 2022, according to company disclosures.
“A company has a right to freedom of speech just like individuals do,” Mr. Iger said at Disney’s annual shareholder meeting this month. “The governor got very angry over the position Disney took and seems like he’s decided to retaliate against us, including the naming of a new board to oversee the property, in effect to seek to punish a company for its exercise of a constitutional right. And that just seems really wrong to me.”