Florida lawmakers granted Governor Ron DeSantis effective control of the board that oversees development in and around Walt Disney Co’s central Florida theme parks, escalating the Republican’s battle with the emblematic company.
The bill, which received final legislative approval Friday, gives the governor the authority to appoint five supervisors to run what is now known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a quasi-government entity with oversight of the 25,000 acres surrounding the Walt Disney World resort.
The board members will be confirmed by the Senate, and will have no involvement in the day-to-day operations of the theme parks.
“Reedy Creek gifted extraordinary special privileges to a single corporation,” DeSantis’ spokesman Bryan Griffin wrote on Twitter. “Until Gov. Ron DeSantis acted, Disney maintained sole control. This amounted to an unaccountable Corporate Kingdom. This is over, and we are beginning a new era of accountability and transparency.”
Disney World is the largest employer in central Florida with close to 75,000 employees, drawing 36.2 million visitors in 2021, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.
The legislature voted last year to dissolve the special district, which for more than a half-century had provided Disney with the autonomy to govern itself, providing such government services as fire protection, water, sewer and waste removal services and infrastructure.
The action, seen as retaliation for Disney’s then-Chief Executive Officer Bob Chapek speaking out against a state law limiting classroom discussion of LGBTQ issues, came with unintended consequences.
Tax experts and legislators warned that eliminating the district in June 2023 would leave county taxpayers liable for nearly $1.2 billion in bond debt.
The new bill preserves the Reedy Creek special district, though within two years it will be renamed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. It will have the authority to collect revenue, pay off debt and provide a range of government services. The district is prohibited from operating its own airport or building nuclear power plants.
The legislation also expressly prevents anyone with ties to the theme parks over the past three years from serving on the board.
“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,” Walt Disney World President Jeff Vahle said in a statement. “We are focused on the future and are ready to work within this new framework.”
The state Senate debated the bill for about an hour on Friday, with a handful of lawmakers voicing opposition.
“This all seems a retaliation by the governor for Disney voicing its support for the LGBTQ community,” said Sen. Linda Stewart, a Democrat who represents Orange County. “Removing business’ independency, and the ability to voice their concerns of their own employees, I think it’s just wrong.”
Republican Sen. Travis Hudson, said the district does not represent “a hostile takeover” of the private sector, but rather, a group of individuals working like a city council, taking over the normal functions of a government.
“They’re not going to go on there and force the hand of any private companies to do what they do in their normal business,” said Hudson.
(Reporting by Dawn Chmielewski in Los Angeles; Editing by Mary Milliken, Chris Reese and Nick Zieminski)