DeSantis and fellow Florida Republicans seek to win another battle in the state’s war against the woke mega-corporation Disney. Since the beginning of Disney World’s construction in 1967, the state of Florida has granted the land it occupies near Orlando to be specially governed by Disney itself, known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The local officials and board members are essentially handpicked by Disney itself, which has allowed for the park to have special tax status from the Florida state government and the ability to expand the park’s facilities without having to consult local and state authorities on possible environmental risks. The new legislation, if signed off, would not only rest control of the district’s tax policies onto Gov. Ron DeSantis but also force the company to immediately pay over $1 billion dollars in municipal debt.
By Robbie Whelan; February 6, 2023
Walt Disney’s dominion over its magic kingdom in Florida may be coming to an end.
Republicans in Florida’s House of Representatives on Monday filed a bill that would dramatically alter the governance—and even change the name of—the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special-tax district near Orlando that has allowed Disney to self-govern the land that houses its Walt Disney World Resort for more than 50 years. The move is the culmination of GOP efforts floated last year to rein in Disney’s special tax status, though it stops short of eliminating it outright.
The bill, sponsored by Orlando Rep. Fred Hawkins, would rename Reedy Creek as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and give Gov. Ron DeSantis the authority to appoint members to its governing body, the five-member board of supervisors. Florida’s state Senate would have to approve any such appointments.
Under the current state law, Reedy Creek’s board is essentially handpicked by Disney, which owns almost all the land and assets within the district. The district has wide latitude to approve new real-estate developments at Walt Disney World without having to seek approvals for environmental impact, drainage and other regulations from local authorities, as other landowners must.
Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World Resort, said in a statement that the company is monitoring the legislation. The company works under a number of different models and jurisdictions around the world and, regardless of the outcome, remains “committed to providing the highest quality experience for the millions of guests who visit each year,” he said.
A Reedy Creek spokeswoman didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The legislation, if approved, would wrest power over the district from Disney and put it in the hands of Mr. DeSantis, who has clashed publicly with the company over the past year after Disney came out in opposition to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law. That measure, which was approved last year, prohibits classroom instruction on gender and sexuality for elementary school students through third grade.
Disney employees staged walkouts last year in protest of the law, known by its opponents as “Don’t Say, Gay,” and former chief executive Bob Chapek initially hesitated to weigh in on the bill before finally saying that Disney opposed it on the grounds that it might harm LGBT children.
Shortly after, Mr. DeSantis called Disney a “woke corporation” that was working to undermine Florida parents and ordered a special session of the state Legislature last year to eliminate the district altogether. Monday’s bill, which will be taken up during a new special legislative session this week, would maintain the district under the new name. The bill is poised to be adopted by the GOP-controlled legislature before the session wraps up next week.
The bill would keep Disney liable for nearly $1 billion in municipal debt issued by the district to pay for roads, sewers, and other infrastructure rather than shifting that burden to the taxpayers of nearby Orange and Osceola counties.
It is unclear exactly how much money the district saves Disney each year, but last year, a former company employee told The Journal that Disney avoids construction delays and administrative costs worth tens of millions of dollars annually under Reedy Creek’s self-governing structure.
There are hundreds of similar special tax districts in Florida, many of them set up to help farmers and other landowners administer infrastructure improvements and services like water and drainage themselves. But Reedy Creek, founded by Walt Disney himself in 1967, is by far the largest—and unique in that it houses one of the most important tourist attractions in the state.
Lawmakers have argued that it is unfair that Disney can expand its theme parks and hotels without having to seek local government approval while competitors have to navigate through layers of red tape. Disney has pointed out that the district maintains its own roads and sewers, has its own fire and EMS services, and pays tens of millions in property taxes to the surrounding counties.
One key area where Disney might have dodged a bullet is on the issue of “impact fees,” said Richard Foglesong, a political-science professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., who wrote a book about Disney’s relationship with the state of Florida. Such charges—which can sometimes reach 30% of the cost of the project—are levied on property developers to account for anticipated environmental effects, increased use of public services, and the need for wider roads, more parking spots, and other issues, Mr. Foglesong said.
“Disney doesn’t have to do that,” he said, but other theme park operators in Florida do.
He argued the bill would be a shock to Disney even though it doesn’t automatically strip away all of its carve-outs. The bill would prohibit anyone who worked for any company involved in the theme park business in the previous three years from serving on the district’s board, which would preclude Disney employees from serving on the board.
“Disney is not going to be happy about this bill,” Mr. Foglesong said. “Disney has long been a company that, when they needed water, they went out and dug their own well.”