Hobbit Business Review

DeSantis Set To Control Disney World’s Special District Under New Bill—Here’s What It Would Do

Florida lawmakers are expected to pass legislation as soon as this week that would overhaul the special district that oversees Walt Disney World by giving Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) power to appoint its board, the culmination of a long-running battle between DeSantis and Disney after the media giant criticized Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

KEY FACTS

Walt Disney World is governed by the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which functions like a county government and takes care of things like roads, construction permits, fire services, building codes, water and waste collection, among other infrastructure concerns.

Florida lawmakers passed legislation that would dissolve Reedy Creek as of June 1 as a way to punish Disney for opposing the “Don’t Say Gay” law, but after that raised concerns that getting rid of the district would burden local taxpayers, the legislature backtracked on its plan, introducing legislation Monday that would overhaul the district instead of getting rid of it entirely.

As it stands now, Reedy Creek is independent from Disney, but the company wields large power over its board, which is elected by the district’s landowners: Disney, which owns two-thirds of the district’s land, and a small number of local residents and affiliates who the company has hand-picked to reside there, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

The proposed legislation would rename Reedy Creek as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and completely throw out its board, which would now instead be made up of five officials who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, and cannot have worked for a company that owns a theme park within the last three years.

The board would have broad control over the district, including “hav[ing] exclusive jurisdiction and control” over infrastructure services, control over what gets constructed or demolished in the district, building regulations, hiring people who work for the district, imposing taxes and entering into deals with private contractors.

The bill does not have any impact on Reedy Creek’s existing bonds and debts, which experts had warned could be pushed on to taxpayers in the surrounding Florida counties if the special district was dissolved entirely.

BIG NUMBER

25,000. That’s how many acres Reedy Creek takes up in central Florida, according to the special district.

CRUCIAL QUOTE

Disney is “monitoring the progression of the draft legislation, which is complex given the long history of the Reedy Creek Improvement District,” Walt Disney World President Jeff Vahle said in a statement to CNN on the bill. “Disney works under a number of different models and jurisdictions around the world, and regardless of the outcome, we remain committed to providing the highest quality experience for the millions of guests who visit each year.”

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

The special district bill is set to be debated in committee on Wednesday, and will likely pass the Republican-controlled legislature as soon as this week as part of a special session that began Monday. It’s possible the bill could be amended before it passes, and Democratic lawmakers have already introduced some amendments that would change how board members are appointed, like having some be local officials. The bill’s provisions will take effect as soon as it becomes law, though the legislation allows the district to keep doing business as Reedy Creek for up to two years during the transition. Current board members’ terms will end as soon as the law takes effect, but the bill states that they can continue to serve until a replacement is appointed.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

What the special district’s likely overhaul will mean for Disney and people who travel to Walt Disney World. Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, told Fox 35 he believes the impact will largely depend on who DeSantis appoints to the board. Board members would have the power to take actions like rejecting theme park construction proposals if they wanted to, which could affect guests’ experiences. Jewett noted the arrangement will likely make Disney much more beholden to DeSantis when he holds the fate of their business in his hands, and the board being made up of his appointees puts “some pressure on Disney not to criticize Governor DeSantis.”

CHIEF CRITIC

State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D), who represents the area around Walt Disney World, told Fox 35 she believes the bill is a “complete power grab” by DeSantis “to award his friends these positions of authority, which can then lead to contracts being pushed toward his friends as well.” Eskamani introduced an amendment to the bill that would rename the district “Florida’s Attempt to Silence Critical and Independent Speech and Thought” (FASCIST).

KEY BACKGROUND

Reedy Creek was first created by the Florida government in 1967 when Walt Disney World was being developed ahead of its opening in 1971. The district had operated largely without controversy until last year when Florida enacted the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which broadly restricts the discussion of LGBTQ topics in schools. Disney, which had previously tried to stay out of the political controversy around the legislation, ultimately came out against it, saying in a statement after the law was enacted that it “should never” have been passed or enacted, and that its “goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts.” That set off DeSantis and Florida Republicans, who responded by taking aim at Reedy Creek and ultimately enacting legislation to dissolve it in April. Before the new bill was introduced on Monday, it hadn’t been clear what the logistics of getting rid of Reedy Creek would actually be, however, particularly after concerns were raised over the tax burden it could cause. The Financial Times reported in December that lawmakers were planning to backtrack on the plan to get rid of the special district, citing the company’s leadership change as Bob Iger replaced Bob Chapek as CEO, but DeSantis’ office denied that report, saying the governor “does not make U-turns.”

TANGENT

DeSantis’ new effort to hand-pick the special district board is part of a broader effort by the GOP governor and potential 2024 candidate to reshape state institutions he believes are opposed to his policies. The governor has also come under fire for recently replacing the entire board at the New College of Florida, a progressive state-run liberal arts college that DeSantis’ administration is now trying to remake to be more Christian and conservative. DeSantis has also thrown his weight behind school board candidates in an effort to appoint officials who are friendlier to his administration and more broadly enacted policies aimed at eradicating diversity efforts and so-called wokeness from school curriculums.

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