Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District is staying silent on its future, even as Gov. Ron DeSantis vows to end the entertainment giant’s self-governing status in Florida in a special legislative session set to begin Monday.
Many people don’t know it even exists, but Reedy Creek’s prism-shaped administrative office plays an integral role in the theme park’s operations. The special district, effectively controlled by Disney, has the power to issue tax-free bonds, regulate land use and provide fire, police, flood control, waste management, roads and other essential public services.
If DeSantis gets his way, the state will be in charge of Reedy Creek, upending a 55-year arrangement that helped Disney make Florida the world’s top theme park destination. DeSantis and his Republican allies have called for replacing Disney’s handpicked members with a state-controlled board.
“Disney will not have self-governing status anymore,” DeSantis said Wednesday. “We’re going to make sure that there are no special legal privileges.”
[ RELATED: DeSantis wants state to take control of Disney World’s Reedy Creek district ]
On Friday, Florida House and Senate leaders announced a special session starting Monday to consider the issue and several others.
In late January, the five-member Board of Supervisors met for their monthly meeting and completed its business in less than an hour, showing no signs of fear that they could soon be out of a job.
The board gave initial approval with only a few moments of discussion to a 30-year development agreement, requiring that future growth be consistent with the district’s comprehensive planning and land-use regulations.
Board members avoided reporters after the meeting, and they didn’t respond to requests for comment, nor did other representatives of Reedy Creek.
Disney World has been referred to as a “Vatican with mouse ears” because of its unusual governance structure.
Lawmakers approved the framework in 1967 to seal Disney’s decision to build its East Coast Disneyland in Florida. Walt Disney had grown frustrated with the souvenir shops and tacky tourist traps outside Disneyland in Anaheim, California. He wanted more independence and control over his Florida park.
Reedy Creek played an instrumental role in fulfilling that vision and making Disney World what it is today, said Sam Gennawey, author of “Walt and the Promise of Progress City.”
“It helped Disney a lot because they were able to do what they wanted to do, how they wanted to do it, and at a pace that was probably quicker than if they had to deal with governmental institutions,” he said. “It allowed them to innovate in a considerable way with new building technologies.”
Reedy Creek board members are elected to four-year terms by the landowners. The thing is, Disney owns almost all of the land in the district.
Because board members also must be landowners, Disney awards them a small tract of undeveloped property with an understanding it will be returned when members leave the board.
Those selected to serve on the Reedy Creek board typically have close ties to Disney and are friendly to the corporation’s interests, Gennawey said.
The board’s president is Laurence C. Hames, the son of an important Orlando banker who also served on the board. Jane Adams worked in government and public relations for Disney before joining the board. Donald R. Greer — the most senior member — has served since 1975.
(Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)
The other two board members are Maximiano Brito, an Orlando architect, and Leila Jammal, a Winter Park engineer.
Because Reedy Creek is a governmental entity, their meetings are open to the public. They gather in a small room with towering glass windows in the district’s administrative office. The building is just down the road from Disney Springs on a street lined with hotels.
Board members receive $25 a day when they are “actually engaged in work pertaining to the district,” with compensation not to exceed $100 a month, according to the district’s charter. They also can recoup traveling expenses for attending meetings.
Lawmakers hadn’t yet filed a bill by Friday outlining the changes to Reedy Creek. A notice published on Osceola County’s website states that lawmakers will take up legislation “increasing state oversight, accountability, and transparency” of the district.
Last year, the Legislature voted to dissolve Reedy Creek effective June 1 of this year but left the option of reconstituting the district. That action came after Disney upset DeSantis by opposing legislation known by critics as the “don’t say gay” bill.
Legislators do have the power to alter the governance structure of Reedy Creek, and some special districts operate with appointed board members, said Christopher Goodman, a professor of public administration at Northern Illinois University who studies special districts.
“Special districts have an interesting place in constitutional law because they don’t have to follow the one man, one vote doctrine,” Goodman said.
Leaving the district intact while replacing the board could allow lawmakers to avoid possible issues with the district’s $1 billion in outstanding debt. The district would continue to collect property taxes to pay down the debt, and its liabilities wouldn’t be shifted over to Orange and Osceola counties, as Central Florida leaders have warned.
In bond documents, Florida pledged to investors that it wouldn’t interfere or limit the district’s ability to raise revenue through taxes and other means. Abolishing the district could violate that, Goodman said.
Reedy Creek bondholders don’t appear to be spooked, said Eric Kazatsky, a senior municipal strategist at Bloomberg intelligence.
“Seems like much ado about nothing in terms of how investors are broadly eyeing the credit,” Kazatsky said, adding that he hasn’t seen any unusual volatility or selling with the district’s bonds.
It’s possible Disney could retain its self-governing powers through two cities it controls ― Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake, said Chad Emerson, who wrote “Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World.”
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Those cities delegated government powers to Reedy Creek and could conceivably take them back if Disney wanted, Emerson said.
“If the state appoints the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the cities could elect to disengage from the district,” he said. “They knew what they were doing in 1968, and they definitely had contingencies.”
Politicians have ignored those two cities, but Disney firmly controls them as company towns. Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista have a combined population of 53, Disney stocks the cities with residents who are typically Disney or Reedy Creek workers and retirees, along with their families.
The residents elect a city council and mayor, all of whom are friendly to Disney. Most of the developed land in Reedy Creek is within the borders of Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake.
Gennawey said he thinks Disney could adapt to having the state in charge of Reedy Creek.
“Disney would certainly be able to work within it and not have a problem,” he said. “You would just see a little less innovation. You’d see a little slower growth. You’d see them sitting on a lot of assets they already have and not being in a rush. Only because of Universal would they feel like they have to spend any money.”