Move over Mickey, DeSantis gains vast power with Reedy Creek takeover – Orlando Sentinel

State lawmakers handed Gov. Ron DeSantis the keys to Disney World’s magic government kingdom on Friday.

DeSantis and future governors get immense power to shape a board that plays an important role in Disney’s operations and future projects and could even force the entertainment giant to chip in money for transportation projects outside its parks.

The governor now will get to appoint all five members of the Reedy Creek Improvement District’s Board of Supervisors subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate. The governor’s political donors are eligible for the job.

Disney currently controls the board and uses the Reedy Creek Creek Improvement District to issue tax-free bonds and provide key public services such as fire protection and utilities for its sprawling property.

Republicans say they are bringing corporate accountability and ending a 55-year arrangement that gave Disney an unfair advantage over its competitors.

“They are not in charge of themselves anymore,” Florida House Speaker Paul Renner said Friday. “As the governor said, ‘There is a new sheriff in town.’ The people’s elected representative — the governor — is making those appointments. They will be governed in a way that levels the playing field.”

But critics argue that the Legislature is swapping one flawed board for another while allowing Disney to keep the tax benefits it enjoys through the district.

“We are taking one problematic swamp, and we are creating another swamp by allowing for one person to appoint all five positions,” state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said in a legislative hearing. “The only reason I can see is because Disney made the governor big mad by defending LGBTQ-plus kids.”

Board members must be Florida residents, but they aren’t required to live in the Orlando area. The legislation bars the appointment of people who have worked directly or indirectly for a theme park or an “entertainment complex” within the past three years.

Consideration will be given to Floridians with experience in a variety of fields from accounting to utilities management, according to the legislation. Board members cannot serve more than three consecutive terms.

Republicans rejected Democratic attempts to bar the governor’s political donors from the board and include local representation, such as the mayors of Orlando, Orange County and Kissimmee and the Osceola County Commission chair.

Statewide representation is needed because of the important role Disney plays in tourism across Florida, and the Florida Senate will vet and confirm the governor’s appointments, said state Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud, who sponsored the bill.

Tourists need not worry, Hawkins said. The Reedy Creek board oversees government services, such as trash removal and fire protection, for Disney’s theme parks, but it doesn’t have a say on the company’s decisions on new rides, ticket prices and other business matters.

“The day-to-day operations remain as they would as if you were there today visiting the theme park, especially when it comes to public safety and emergency services,” Hawkins said.

Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud, closes on his House Bill 9B – Reedy Creek Improvement District, Orange and Osceola Counties in the State Affairs Committee meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

What that board looks like, though, could have ramifications on Disney’s future in Florida, depending on how the governor exercises that power, said Richard Foglesong, who wrote a book called “Married to the Mouse” on Disney World’s origins. That board is responsible for hiring a district administrator who oversees daily operations.

“Will DeSantis make appointments here like he did at New College?” asked Foglesong, a Rollins College professor. “Will he appoint culture warrior types to continue the strategy, foolish or not, that gets him lots of national publicity?”

At New College of Florida, DeSantis transformed the small liberal arts college’s Board of Trustees, installing Christopher Rufo, a prominent conservative education advocate, and other conservatives. The board promptly fired the college’s president and replaced her with Richard Corcoran, the former GOP Florida House speaker and state education commissioner.

The board’s new general counsel is Bill Galvano, a former Republican Senate president.

State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, alluded to New College in discussing why the changes are significant, even though the district’s powers remain mostly the same.

“If you don’t think that governance is everything, you can go take a look at another one of my targets of a few years ago — New College,” Fine said. “Who is in charge matters.”

Disney controls the board because it owns almost all of the land in the district and members are elected by landowners. Board members also must own property in the district, so Disney provides small plots to those who serve with the understanding that they will return it when they leave the board.

Jeff Vahle, president of Wat Disney World Resort, issued a statement Friday night signaling the company will accept the changes.

“For more than 50 years, the Reedy Creek Improvement District has operated at the highest standards, and we appreciate all that the district has done to help our destination grow and become one of the largest economic contributors and employers in the state,” he said. “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.”

DeSantis has clashed with Disney over its opposition to what critics called the “don’t say gay” that limited classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.

FILE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reacts after publicly signing HB7,

Republicans firmly control Tallahassee, but if Democrats gain power in the future they could also use the new power to exert pressure on Disney. The company has faced criticism from Democrats and activists for not paying its workers enough and contributing to an affordable housing crisis in Central Florida.

DeSantis hasn’t revealed what he has in the works for the board. Bryan Griffin, a DeSantis spokesman, didn’t respond to a question about when new appointments could be made.

Two of the board members’ terms expire in May. The remaining three board members’ terms end in May 2025.

Reedy Creek’s name will be changed within two years to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, but it will continue to have most of the same powers as it did in the past.

“The biggest news I think is what didn’t happen — that they didn’t dissolve Reedy Creek,” Foglesong said.

Lawmakers voted last year to abolish the district effective June 1 but left the option of keeping it with changes. Dissolving the district could have saddled Orange and Osceola counties with Reedy Creek’s $1 billion debt, several opponents and financial analysts said last year. Such a move also could have violated a promise the state made with investors in bond documents.

The district can continue to issue tax-free bonds, levy taxes and retain some tax benefits, such as not paying impact fees on new construction and sales tax on construction materials. Its debt will stay with the district instead of being shifted to Osceola or Orange counties. Disney will continue to pay property taxes to Orange and Osceola counties as it always has done.

Walt Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District Board of Supervisors meets at their headquarters in Lake Buena Vista, Wednesday, January 25, 2023. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida legislators have voted to dissolve Reedy Creek by June. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

The district is losing some privileges. Those powers, such as using eminent domain to acquire property outside its borders or devoting public dollars for advertising, have been used sparingly, if ever. The district also is losing its authority to build a nuclear power plant, an idea that has never been seriously considered.

DeSantis says the new board could require Disney to pay more in taxes for road, rail or other transportation projects outside the district. The bill includes language allowing tax revenue to be spent on projects outside the district but within Orange and Osceola counties.

In its talking points, the governor’s office proclaims the legislation “end Disney’s free ride by empowering the District to impose taxes on Disney for road and infrastructure improvements outside of the District’s boundaries.”

DeSantis is proposing spending nearly $1.5 billion to improve and expand Interstate 4 from Osceola Parkway near Disney World to ChampionsGate. The state reached a $198 million agreement in 2021 to acquire Crossroads of Lake Buena Vista shopping center near Disney World to make way for a new interchange and alleviate congestion there.

The new board could decide that Disney should pay for at least some of the project because of the traffic jams the resort contributes to on I-4.

Reedy Creek has assisted with road projects outside its borders in the past. It partnered with Osceola County to build the Osceola Parkway with tolls intended to pay for the thoroughfare.

Disney’s competitor, Universal, recently got $125 million from Orange County and $16 million from the state to partially pay for extending a road to Epic Universe, a new theme park expected to open in 2025.

The changes could have other consequences, Foglesong said. For instance, Disney could be more willing to develop its property for residential use now that it no longer needs to limit who lives in the district to keep control of its government.

Disney also controls two cities — Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista — that have a combined population of 53 residents, who are primarily current or former Disney employers and their families.

Political Pulse


Get latest updates political news from Central Florida and across the state.

“Disney could develop all that vacant land of theirs for high-end commercial and residential uses,” Foglesong said. “Maybe that’s why they’re being coy about the new legislation. Maybe they’re willing to trade control of the district for this money-making opportunity.”

Chad Emerson, who wrote “Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World,” said he thinks it’s possible Reedy Creek could pass some of its powers to the two cities it controls, allowing Disney to retain some power.

Reedy Creek’s long-term plan includes the possibility of a fifth Disney theme park and two other smaller attractions, such as a water park. Reedy Creek’s board would have a say in how roads and other needs would be met if Disney decides to expand.

Even if Disney is no longer picking the members, the board still will have the incentive to maintain Disney World’s status as a premier destination, said Jake Schumer, a Maitland attorney who sounded the alarm about the consequences of dissolving the district.

“Nobody wants to be responsible for ruining Disney World,” he said.

Staff writer Jeffrey Schweers contributed to this report.

[email protected]