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Shakeup continues at Disney district a year after takeover by DeSantis appointees

Shakeup continues at Disney district a year after takeover by DeSantis appointees

ORLANDO, Fla. — The shakeup of Walt Disney World’s governing district more than a year after it was taken over by Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ appointees continued Wednesday with the departure of its board chairman who had been highly critical of Disney.

Martin Garcia’s departure as chairman of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District is coming a week after the district’s administrator, Glen Gilzean, left to accept an appointment by DeSantis as interim elections supervisor in Orange County, the home of Orlando, at half his district’s $400,000 salary.

Martin didn’t respond to an email and phone message seeking comment on Wednesday. He was appointed by DeSantis last year to a term that was supposed to expire in February 2027.

In an email, DeSantis’ communications director, Bryan Griffin, thanked Garcia for “successfully navigating” the transition of the district from a governing body controlled by Disney supporters to the current iteration controlled by DeSantis appointees.

Garcia “developed a new district focused on transparency and the elimination of corporate welfare,” Griffin said.

The Republican governor also recommended that a former senior advisor, Stephanie Kopelousos, be named the district’s new administrator. Kopelousos was a director of legislative affairs for DeSantis and previously served in other administrations of Florida governors.

“We are glad to see her step into this leadership role as the District embarks upon the next chapter in its efforts to ensure an even and transparent playing field for the businesses that operate in Central Florida,” Griffin said.

Since the takeover last year, the district has faced an exodus of experienced staffers, with many in exit surveys complaining that the governing body has been politicized since the changeover, and lots of litigation. The district provides municipal services such as firefighting, planning and mosquito control, among other things, and was controlled by Disney supporters for most of its five decades.

A fight between DeSantis and Disney began in 2022 after the company, facing significant internal and external pressure, publicly opposed a state law that critics have called “Don’t Say Gay.” The 2022 law banned classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades and was championed by DeSantis, who used Disney as a punching bag in speeches until he suspended his presidential campaign this year.

As punishment for opposition to the law, DeSantis took over the district through legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature and appointed a new board of supervisors.

Disney sued DeSantis and his appointees, claiming the company’s free speech rights were violated for speaking out against the legislation. A federal judge dismissed that lawsuit in January. Disney has appealed.

A separate lawsuit over who controls the district is still pending in state court in Orlando.

A settlement agreement over the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation was reached this week between Florida education officials and civil rights groups that had challenged the constitutionality of the law on behalf of parents, students and others. The law remains intact, but the deal spells out that the Florida law doesn’t prohibit discussing LGBTQ+ people, prevent anti-bullying rules based on sexual orientation and gender identity, or disallow Gay-Straight Alliance groups.

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Follow Mike Schneider on X, formerly known as Twitter: @MikeSchneiderAP.

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