Here's What It Means Now That Gov. Ron DeSantis Is Taking Over The Disney District
The Florida governor signed a bill to end a special tax district encompassing Walt Disney World.
The “Happiest Place On Earth” might become a little less happy now that Florida government has taken control of the Disney district. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill on Monday to end a special tax, self-governing district which encompasses Walt Disney World.
“The corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” DeSantis said during a news conference Monday. “There's a new sheriff in town, and accountability will be the order of the day.”
DeSantis — who literally got married at Disney World — says that the special district enabled the company to skirt tax rules and building codes.
The new law would allow Florida legislature to essential take over the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the government body that has given Disney unique powers in Central Florida for more than 50 years.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District is a special purpose district created by state law in May 1967 that gives The Walt Disney Company governmental control over the land in and around its central Florida theme parks.
At the time, the land was mostly swamp, according to Reedy Creek’s website. With the special purpose district, Disney took over responsibility for providing municipal services like power, water, roads and fire protection. They were also freed from dealing with legal red tape or, most importantly, paying taxes for services that benefited the general public.
Today, the Reedy Creek special district encompasses about 25,000 acres in Orange and Osceola counties, including four theme parks, two water parks, one sports complex, 175 lane miles of roadway, 67 miles of waterway, and the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, its website says.
“The cooperation and commitment between the Reedy Creek Improvement District and Walt Disney World Company is as strong today as it was when the District was created in 1967,” the Reedy Creek website states. “The result is an example of how a working partnership between business and government can be prosperous for both sides.”
This new bill allows the governor to replace the Reedy Creek Improvement District’s existing board — mostly people with ties to Disney — with a five-member body that DeSantis hand-picked.
DeSantis’ appointees will be in charge of the district’s taxing powers as well as building and borrowing money for projects and services around Disney.
One of the appointed is an architect of the “don’t say gay” law named Bridget Ziegler who is married to the chairman of the Florida Republican party. She was a founder of the rightwing education group Moms for Liberty.
The other four members of the panel are: Martin Garcia, Republican lawyer who donated $50,000 to DeSantis’s reelection campaign, Brian Aungst, an attorney and son of a former Republican mayor; Mike Sasso, an attorney; and Ron Peri, founder of the Gathering ministry which preaches Christian nationalism.
Other aspects of the bill include renaming Reedy Creek to the “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District” and restricting the district’s use of eminent domain and removes the powers that could have allowed Disney to build its own airport or a nuclear plant.
The feud between one of the golden boys in the alarmingly far-right Republican party and the world-renowned entertainment company began in March 2022 when DeSantis signed the officially titled “Parental Rights in Education” bill AKA the vague time- and money-wasting “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
It barred instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation issues in kindergarten to third-grade classes, spanning the ages of about five to nine.
At Disney's annual meeting with shareholders back in March 2022, former Disney CEO Bob Chapek acknowledged Disney employees anger over the company’s initial silence on the matter, saying that he knows “many are upset that we didn't speak out against the bill.”
Some even called out Disney for donating to several members of Florida legislature who voted in favor of the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
According to the accountability news site Popular Information, "In the last two years, Disney has donated $197,162 to members of the Florida legislature that have already voted for the 'Don't Say Gay' legislation," including to sponsors of the bill, Florida Rep. Joe Harding (R) and state Sen. Dennis Baxley (R).
Chapek went on to claim that Disney leaders were opposed to the bill “from the outset, but we chose not to take a public position on it because we thought we could be more effective working behind-the-scenes, engaging directly with lawmakers — on both sides of the aisle.”
Chapek said the company is “reassessing our approach to advocacy — including political giving in Florida and beyond.”
The company went on to make an official statement on the bill, standing by their LGBTQ+ Disney family.
“Florida’s HB 1557, also known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, should never have passed and should never have been signed into law,” the March 2022 statement said.
The company said it was “dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Florida and across the country.”
Despite the about-face by Chapek and Disney, the bill became a law, and DeSantis quickly began to plot his next move: taking over Disney’s governing district, seemingly to get revenge on Mickey Mouse and friends for speaking out against his political agenda.
While conservative media is praising the polarizing governor for his political move, several GOP members have spoken out against DeSantis’ seemingly-petty behavior. Former Vice President Mike Pence said the conflict with Disney was “beyond the scope of what I as a conservative, limited government Republican would be prepared to do.”
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said penalizing businesses for political speech set “the worst precedent in the world.”
DeSantis is widely expected to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, challenging former President Donald Trump.
In a statement to CNN, Jeff Vahle — the president of Walt Disney World Resort — said the company is “monitoring the progression of the draft legislation, which is complex given the long history of the Reedy Creek Improvement District.”
“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,” Vahle said.