The bill stripping control of the governmental district covering Walt Disney World from Disney awaits Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature, ending a chapter in a year-long political feud between the Mouse and the state’s chief executive.
The bill’s passage was widely expected, given the Republican majorities in both the Florida House and Senate. While technically not a repeal of the Reedy Creek Improvement District that was first established in 1967, the legislation replaces the Disney-controlled structure with a five-member board appointed by the governor.
Disney will also lose some privileges it never used, such as the ability to build its own nuclear power plant, and will still be responsible for the nearly $1 billion in existing bonds issued under the RCID. The district’s name will be changed to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.
“They’re not in charge of themselves anymore,” Republican Florida House Speaker Paul Renner said of Disney before the bill was passed. “As the Governor said, ‘There’s a new sheriff in town.’ The people’s elected representative, the Governor, is making those appointments, so they’ll be governed in a way that levels the playing field with other entities.”
Republicans had earlier rejected amendments from Democrats that would have added more members to the board that would not be appointed by DeSantis, including the mayors of Orlando, Kissimmee, Orange County, as well as a member of the Osceola County Board of Commissioners.
DeSantis made no secret that the bill was motivated by Disney’s public opposition to the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which said Florida schools cannot teach sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade or “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” DeSantis called that stance a “provocation, and Democrats cited those concerns of retaliation in explaining their opposition.
“Private businesses need to be concerned about their First Amendment right by speaking up on an issue they’re going to be punished,” Florida Sen. Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat from Orlando, told The Orlando Sentinel. “That’s what this is.”
For the typical Disney World guest, however, the state takeover is unlikely to affect their theme park experience. In fact, the new district will still be able to levy taxes (on itself) and issue bonds, and retains privileges such as not paying sales tax on construction materials.
“In terms of the day-to-day operation of the district, it doesn’t look like much is going to change,” Aubrey Jewett, associate political science professor at the University of Central Florida, told NBC News.
Richard Foglesong, a Rollins College professor who authored a book on Disney World called “Married to the Mouse,” suggested to the Sentinel that Disney could use the new structure to develop residential or commercial properties. Before the change, Disney had to limit who lived in the district to retain control.
But Fogelsong also floated the possibility that the DeSantis-controlled board could be used for political attacks on Disney. “Will he appoint culture warrior types to continue the strategy, foolish or not, that gets him lots of national publicity?” he said.
Theme Park Tribune had previously asked DeSantis’ office whether it was seeking any control over the content of Disney World’s rides, shows and attractions. No response was given and no such provision was included in the bill.
For its part, Disney World released a congenial statement credited to resort president Jeff Vahle, saying, “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 every year.”