Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law Monday that gives the state control of Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District, stripping the resort of its self-governing powers amid a feud with the governor.
“Today, the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” said DeSantis at Reedy Creek Fire Station No. 4 on Disney property where he signed the bill. “This is what accountability looks like.”
The law, effective immediately, gives the governor the power to appoint all five members of the governing board of the district. Members face Senate confirmation.
The governor also announced his choices for the board: Bridget Ziegler, a member of the Sarasota County School Board and a supporter of Moms for Liberty; Seminole County attorney Michael Sasso; attorney Martin Garcia of Tampa as chairman; Ron Peri, CEO of The Gathering USA, a ministry that focuses on faith and culture; and Clearwater attorney Brian Aungst.
The law also renames Reedy Creek as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.
Disney and Reedy Creek officials did not respond to requests for comment.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, issued a statement slamming the state takeover. While the district’s leadership has changed, most of its special powers remain intact.
“Disney still maintains the same tax breaks — but their First Amendment rights have been suppressed, and it sends a message to any private individual or company that if you don’t purport to what the governor wants, then you’ll be punished,” she said.
Under the old law passed by the Legislature as Walt Disney prepared to build his theme park in 1967, the district’s landowners elected the board members. Because Disney owns almost all of the land in the district, it picked all of them.
That law gave Disney unique control over development and other services within its boundaries, something usually reserved for cities and counties.
DeSantis said the arrangement gave Disney an unfair advantage.
The change in the law comes amid the company’s opposition to what critics call the “don’t say gay” law approved by DeSantis and the Legislature last year. It prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for grades kindergarten through 3 or in a manner that is not “age appropriate.”
Former Disney CEO Bob Chapek spoke out against the law, and Disney suspended political contributions in Florida after DeSantis signed it.
Last year, the governor pushed Florida lawmakers to abolish Reedy Creek effective June 1 of this year, but they left the option of keeping it with changes, which is what lawmakers ultimately did in a special session this month.
Dissolving the district could have saddled Orange and Osceola counties with Reedy Creek’s $1 billion in debt.
DeSantis signed the bill in a bay at Reedy Creek’s fire department, standing in front of a fire truck with an American flag. Reedy Creek firefighters and emergency workers backed him and presented a ceremonial ax to DeSantis as spectators applauded.
John Shirey, president of Reedy Creek Professional Firefighters, praised the state takeover and criticized the previous board for its handling of public safety issues, which he said led to personnel and ambulances shortages.
The union of about 200 firefighters, paramedics and emergency workers has clashed with the district’s administration in contract negotiations and endorsed DeSantis reelection effort.
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“For many years, there has been a blatant disregard and bias against the first responders here,” Shirey said. “The lack of concern for public safety has been very apparent by the Reedy Creek administration and this current Board of Supervisors. This bias has created major public safety shortcomings.”
DeSantis suggested that one of the board’s first acts could be boosting compensation for emergency personnel. Disney also could pay more for transportation projects with the state now in charge of the board, and taxpayers will not be stuck with extra costs, DeSantis said.
He also used the event to criticize Disney for COVID-19 restrictions, such as mask requirements for children and vaccine mandates for employees, and what he considers to be “woke” corporate policies.
“We want our kids to be kids,” DeSantis said. “We want them to be able to enjoy entertainment [and] school without having an agenda imposed upon them.”
Other speakers included an Osceola mother upset at Disney entertainment offerings and an employee who didn’t like the company’s vaccine and mask policies.
The new board is scheduled to meet on March 8.
“Buckle up,” DeSantis told the crowd.