TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers moved forward Wednesday with a state overhaul of Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District as Gov. Ron DeSantis vows to end the special status the entertainment giant has enjoyed in Florida since 1967.
The measure would replace Disney’s handpicked five-member board overseeing the district with a governor-appointed one. It also would rename Reedy Creek the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District within two years.
“To all that visit the park, nothing has changed; day to day it will be the same,” bill sponsor Rep. Fred Hawkins of St. Cloud said before the House State Affairs committee voted 17-3 in favor of the bill with the support of some Democrats.
DeSantis had promised big changes for the district that Disney uses to self-govern its theme park and resort properties. Reedy Creek has the power to levy taxes, issue bonds and handle important government services like fire protection and utilities — things it will continue to handle under the proposed reorganization.
“There’s a new sheriff in town,” DeSantis said at a news conference. “And that’s just the way it’s going to be.”
The bill, part of a two-week special session called by Florida leaders, will be taken up by the full House on Thursday and then head to the Senate, where it’s expected to pass.
Under existing law, the district’s landowners elect the board members. Because Disney owns almost all of the land in the district, it can pick the board members for Reedy Creek, created by the Legislature in 1967 as Walt Disney prepared to build his Florida theme park.
Each member of the board must also own land in Reedy Creek. Under the proposed bill, there is no land-owning or residency requirement other than they be Florida residents.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who called the bill a “power grab” by the governor, filed amendments to make the new district more accountable to the public with a more diverse board, including locally elected officials and to ban political contributors to DeSantis.
“There is consensus that the original board makeup was problematic. They were appointed by Disney and Disney had the ultimate power,” Eskamani said. “But you are creating a different swamp by having one person in charge of appointing the board.”
But her amendment to have the Cabinet appoint three members to a seven-member board, as well as the mayors of Orlando, Orange County, Kissimmee and the chair of the Osceola County Commission, failed.
Another to rename the district “Florida’s Attempt to Silence Critical and Independent Speech and Thought,” with the acronym of FASCIST, also was voted down.
That amendment was a reference to Disney’s battle with DeSantis over what critics call the “don’t say gay” law that limits instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in schools. DeSantis pushed for abolishing Reedy Creek after the company opposed the law.
Rep. Rita Harris, D-Orlando, had a similar amendment to exclude political donors to the governor, but it also failed. Such a measure would disqualify current supervisor Leila Jammal, who gave $15,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis.
Under the bill, anyone who has worked directly or indirectly for a theme park within the past three years would be prohibited from serving.
Eskamani and other Democrats tried to get answers about why Disney should be the only Florida business overseen by a special district board entirely appointed by the governor, and whether the new board would be committed to collective bargaining with the firefighters of Reedy Creek.
They also pressed Hawkins to explain what real differences were being made with the bill, considering that last year the Legislature voted to abolish the district at the request of DeSantis.
“We are putting them on an equal playing field with … competitors in the tourism industry,” Hawkins said. “This takes away special advantages they’ve had for the past 50 years or more.”
He also said it provides more accountability and reporting, while at the same time Reedy Creek already goes above and beyond statutory reporting requirements.
“I would simply say it takes away self-governance,” Hawkins said.
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The measure removes the district’s ability to adjust its borders without a special act or use eminent domain to acquire land outside its boundaries, implements new reporting requirements, and removes the district’s ability to levy tolls and use funds to advertise attractions in the district. It also strikes language authorizing the district to have an airport or nuclear power plant.
When asked, Hawkins said the district has never contemplated building a nuclear power plant, and last used its eminent domain powers outside the district in the 1960s.
Dissolving the district could have saddled Orange and Osceola counties with Reedy Creek’s 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.
In a statement Monday, Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World Resort, said the company is monitoring the legislation and remains committed to providing the “highest quality experience” for guests regardless of the outcome.
Meanwhile, Reedy Creek board members gathered Wednesday for their regular meeting at the district’s administrative building near Disney Springs. They did not discuss the legislation.
After the meeting, board members Laurence C. Hames and Donald R. Greer told reporters they plan to continue with their business and don’t know what their future could be.
“I don’t have any contact with the governor, or the state, or the company or anybody,” said Greer, who has served on the board since 1975. The bill would limit supervisors to three four-year terms.