Walt Disney Co. Poised To Lose Control Of Florida Theme Park Special District As Lawmakers Pass Bill For Ron DeSantis-Backed State Takeover

Disney World
(Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

UPDATE, with Walt Disney World statement: The Florida State Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill on Friday giving the state control over a special district that covers Walt Disney World.

The bill, which passed in a 26-9 vote, follows House passage this week. It now goes to Governor Ron DeSantis, a champion of the move who has indicated that he will sign it.

The legislation will allow the governor to appoint the five members of the board of the district, subject to Senate approval. The district was set up to oversee and finance infrastructure and land-use at the Florida property. Since it was formed in 1967, Disney has effectively had control of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, as members currently must be landowners within the district boundaries. The district will be renamed the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

State Sen. Travis Hutson, sponsor of the legislation, said after the vote that, by coincidence, he had a pre-planned trip to the theme park on Friday afternoon.

“I am going to Disney World, and I am just hoping I am allowed in,” he said.

Jeff Vahle, President of Walt Disney World Resort, said in a statement after the vote, “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.”

Opponents said that the legislation is retaliation by DeSantis after Disney came out against a parental rights bill, dubbed the “don’t say gay” law by its detractors.

“No one in this room had a problem with Disney before the governor did,” said State Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democrat. “…They were singled out not because of wrongdoing. Just because someone’s feelings got hurt.”

Others have raised the prospect that the district would be used to punish Disney if it does something that the governor does not like. But Sen. Debbie Mayfield, a Republican, said that nothing in the law “tells them that they cannot do anything that they want” on their property.

Hutson said that the state-appointed board members “are not going to go in there and set policies. They are going to go in there and act like a city council or county commission government does.”

Still, it was clear that the motive for the bill was because of Disney’s decision to speak out on the parental rights law.

State Sen. Ron Johnson said, “It was Disney’s decision to go from an apolitical, safe, 25,000 acres and try to be involved in public policy. All we are doing is confirming … We’re saying, ‘You have changed the terms of our agreement, therefore we will put some authority around what you do.”

PREVIOUSLY, THURSDAY, 12:13 PM: Florida’s House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill that will strip The Walt Disney Co. of its 55 years of control over a special district covering Walt Disney World.

Lawmakers voted 82-31 for the bill, which will allow Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to appoint members to the board of the special district, confirmed by the Senate, rather than those controlled by the company. The bill now goes to the Senate, which is also expected to pass it.

Opponents called the legislation a “power grab” by DeSantis, and raised the prospect that the governor would use the district board to punish Disney even for its content decisions.

“Are we going to see the board vetoing projects that are considered to go against any governor?” said Rep. Rita Harris (D-FL).

She cited Disney‘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…This is not the free market.”

Last year, after Disney came out against parental rights legislation — dubbed by opponents as a “don’t say gay” bill — DeSantis targeted the company, leading an effort to strip it of a special district that oversees much of its Florida theme park property. He blasted Disney as a “woke” corporation while characterizing the retaliatory move as a way to end the special arrangement Disney set up in the 1960s to self-govern its property.

After lawmakers dissolved the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which has powers over planning, infrastructure and taxation, officials in surrounding counties expressed concerns that they would be left with more than $1 billion in the district’s bond debt.

So DeSantis has backed the latest bill, which keeps the district in place but prevents theme park employees from serving on the board. The district will continue to have the power to tax and issue bonds, but as supporters noted on Thursday, it will be run with government control. The district’s board now is made up of landowners within the district, giving the company control given that Disney owns most of the property within its boundaries.

“We are eliminating something that no other citizen or company in the United States has: The right to govern itself,” said Rep. Randy Fine (R-FL).

He said that the legislation would create a “level playing field” among theme parks in central Florida, where Disney is engaged in stiff competition with NBCUniversal’s Orlando properties.

“This is something we should have done decades ago, but because of the power of corporations, we could not,” he said.

But Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-FL) said that the legislation would give DeSantis an “authoritarian, Darth Vader-like grip” over the district, as he will be appointing its board members. She proposed an amendment to ensure that local leaders were on the board, but it was rejected.

“What if Disney decides to do a movie that features a trans kid?” she said. “Is DeSantis going to try to cancel that and wield his board to censor Disney’s media arm?”

She indicated that she is not opposed to reforming the Reedy Creek special district, but is against the motive for doing so: Getting back at Disney for publicly opposing DeSantis. Eskamani said she “cannot stand to watch government being weaponized because you don’t like what [a corporation] said, because you take offense at their position.”

Rep. Fred Hawkins (R-FL), the sponsor of the bill, said that the legislation ensures that the district will have “openness and transparency” and that no corporation had “an unfair business advantage.”

He said that the bill was a response to the special session that the state legislature had in 1967, as the Disney company was preparing to build its new theme park. Back then, the legislature, anticipating a tourist boom in central Florida, overwhelmingly approved the creation of the special district.

President Joe Biden traveled to the state on Thursday to make a speech on Social Security and Medicare. Asked about DeSantis’ battle with Disney, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters, “I don’t know about you all, but I certainly would not get into a fight with Mickey Mouse.”

PREVIOUSLY, Wednesday: Florida lawmakers advanced a bill that will give the state control over a special district that has allowed The Walt Disney Co. to self-govern much of the area around Walt Disney World for more than a half century.

The legislation will give Gov. Ron DeSantis the power to appoint the five members of the district’s board, subject to state Senate confirmation. The bill cleared the State Affairs Committee on Wednesday and is scheduled to reach the floor of the House on Thursday as part of a special session.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, DeSantis told reporters at a news conference, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

The bill also renames the Reedy Creek Improvement District as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

DeSantis led an effort to repeal Disney’s special district in response to the company’s vocal opposition to a parental rights law, dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill, last year. But local officials had raised the possibility that such a dissolution would leave surrounding counties with the more than $1 billion in bond debt.

The result was the new legislation, which also strips the special district of some of its previous powers. It will still remain a taxation district with the ability to issue bonds.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat and critic of DeSantis, proposed an amendment to the Reedy Creek bill to rename the district Florida’s Attempt to Silence Critical and Independent Speech and Thought, or FASCIST. The amendment was not adopted.

PREVIOUSLY, February 6, 11.51 AM: Florida lawmakers unveiled a bill Monday for state control of a special district set up to let The Walt Disney Co. largely self-govern much of the area around Walt Disney World.

The bill, expected to be considered during a special session of the state Legislature this month, would allow Gov. Ron DeSantis to appoint the five board members of the district. The legislation also would rename the Reedy Creek Improvement District to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

The bill (read it here) also calls for the district to continue honoring outstanding debt and will retain powers of taxation. The board members would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The bill also prohibits anyone who has been a theme park employee, officer or director in the past three years from serving on the board, along with their relatives.

The district was created by the legislature in 1967 as Disney prepared to build its theme park on the property. As Aaron Goldberg recounted in his book Buying Disney’s World, the establishment of the district, along with the creation of the municipalities Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake, “gave Disney complete legal power and control over its land — drainage, utilities, sewer systems, construction, public transportation, airports, fire and EMS, and so forth.” State lawmakers approved the district overwhelmingly, he wrote.

But last year, DeSantis led an effort to dissolve the special district after The Walt Disney Co. came out against his parental rights legislation, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Democrats and other critics slammed the governor for the move as one of retaliation against the company for taking a public position on the issue, while officials in surrounding counties expressed concern that they would be stuck with around $1 billion in Reedy Creek district debt.

The governor’s staff had said that additional legislation would address concerns before the dissolution of the district, scheduled for June. Under the bill, that wouldn’t happen, but the district would operate under a new name and control.

DeSantis said in a press conference last week, “We’re not going to have a corporation controlling its own government.”

The governor has the votes for state control of the district, just as he had support last year for its dissolution.

Walt Disney World Resort president Jeff Vahle put out a statement in which he said that they were monitoring the legislation. “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.” According to the analysis, the district has $1.18 billion in bond debt, including $962 billion supported by ad valorem taxation, or property taxes, and $214 million from utility revenues.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando, called the proposed bill “a clear power grab by the Governor.”

The district is set up to oversee such things as land use and infrastructure within its boundaries. Under current law, board members are selected by landowners within the district, meaning that Disney has control over who sits on the body.

According to a state analysis of the legislation, the bill also would strip the district of a number of other powers. That includes its ability to own and operate airport facilities, stadiums and arenas, “novel and experimental” transportation facilities and a nuclear fission power plant. It also remove authority over certain roads and highways. The district also would no longer be exempted from state land use regulation, building and safety codes and zoning rules. The board also would be required to submit, every five years, reports to the governor and state elected leaders that reviews the remaining powers of the district.

This article was printed from https://deadline.com/2023/02/disney-world-ron-desantis-special-district-1235251352/