Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law that strips The Walt Disney Co. of its 55-year control over a special district covering its Florida theme parks.
The move — punishment after the company spoke out against DeSantis’ parental rights legislation last year — means that he will appoint the members of the five-member Reedy Creek Improvement District board.
At a signing ceremony held at a fire station on the Disney property, DeSantis criticized Disney as a ;woke Burbank corporation” that was trying to inject “woke ideology” on kids. “When you lose your way, you got to have people who are going to tell you the truth,” he said.
DeSantis also announced his nominees for the board, which are subject to Florida Senate confirmation. They include attorney Brian Aungst; attorney Martin Garcia, selected as chairman; Ron Peri, the CEO of The Gathering USA ministry; attorney Michael Sasso, president of the Federalist Society’s Orlando chapter; and Bridget Ziegler, a member of the Sarasota County School Board and a supporter of the conservative education group Moms for Liberty.
The board members will have oversight over the special district’s infrastructure and services, as well as taxing authority, but DeSantis also referred to Disney’s content decisions. “I think that all of these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate.” Although the board doesn’t have oversight over Disney’s content decisions, it does have control over critical infrastructure projects and services that the theme parks need for their operations.
Some of the opponents of the legislation warned that it could be used to try to punish the company for making decisions it did not like. One lawmaker, Rep. Rita Harris, a Democrat, cited the company’s recent decision to transform Splash Mountain into Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, the latter viewed as an effort by the company for more diversity and inclusivity. “What if the governor didn’t like that?” Harris said. “Would the board be able to push the company into changing their business model?”
DeSantis championed the move to strip Disney of its control of the special district following the company’s opposition to the parental rights bill, dubbed the “don’t say gay” law, but he and other supporters of the legislation say that it also ends special treatment for one corporation. The law renames the Reedy Creek district the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.
“Now Disney is going to be treated like Sea World is treated, and that is really the fair thing to do,” he said.
DeSantis’ move has drawn criticism from fellow Republicans. Last week, former Vice President Mike Pence told CNBC, “Disney stepped into the fray. They lost. But the idea of going after their taxing authority, that was beyond the scope of what I as a conservative limited government Republican would be prepared to do.”
Pence, like DeSantis, may be a contender for the GOP presidential nomination next year. At the signing ceremony, DeSantis noted that his book is due out on Tuesday.
The special district was approved by Florida lawmakers in 1967 as Disney embarked on ambitious plans for a “Florida project.” Walt Disney’s original vision was to build a futuristic city called the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and the special district gave the company autonomy over the development of its vast holdings there. The city was never built, and instead Disney developed theme parks, hotels and resorts on the land, creating one of the most visited tourist destinations in the country. But through the years there has been some criticism over the Reedy Creek district and why a public entity with taxing authority was under private control.
Shortly after Disney, then led by CEO Bob Chapek, criticized the parental rights law, DeSantis championed legislation to dissolve the district. Lawmakers did just that, but county officials expressed concerns that the legislation would saddle them with the district’s debt, estimated at more than $1 billion. That led to the new legislation that retains the district but under state control. The legislation also includes provisions for the district to continue paying its debt obligations.
When the latest bill cleared the Florida legislature earlier this month, Jeff Vahle, President of Walt Disney World Resort, said in a statement, “We are focused on the future and are ready to work within this new framework, and we will continue to innovate, inspire and bring joy to the millions of guests who come to Florida to visit Walt Disney World each year.”
Must Read Stories
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.