Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would get to appoint all five leaders of Disney’s special tax district in Orlando, under new legislation that was released on Monday.
The bill would make good on DeSantis’ promise last year to take over the district, after Disney criticized a state law that restricts instruction on gender identity and sexual identity.
The Legislature passed a bill last spring to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which covers nearly 40 square miles in Orange and Osceola counties, including Disney World, EPCOT and other attractions. Disney has controlled the district since its inception in 1967.
The new legislation would reestablish the district under a new name, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. It would also provide that the five members of the district’s Board of Supervisors are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. The law would bar anyone who has worked for Disney or other theme park operators within the past three years, and their relatives, from serving on the board.
Under the current system, the Board of Supervisors is chosen by the landowners within the district, namely Disney and its affiliates, on a one-vote-per-acre basis.
When the dissolution was first announced last spring, opponents warned that local taxpayers could end up saddled with $1 billion in Disney debt. The law makes clear that those obligations will transfer to the new entity, which will also assume the powers previously granted to the Reedy Creek district.
If it becomes law, the bill could face a legal challenge from Disney, which stands to lose control over a wide range of functions at its Orlando theme parks. The Reedy Creek district handles 911 calls, fire protection, the power grid, planning and land use decisions, road maintenance, mosquito abatement, flood control, and water quality. The district levies taxes on the landowners to support its operations and debt service.
“We are monitoring the progression of the draft legislation, which is complex given the long history of the Reedy Creek Improvement District,” said Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World Resort, in a statement. “Disney works under a number of different models and jurisdictions around the world, and regardless of the outcome, we remain committed to providing the highest quality experience for the millions of guests who visit each year.”
State officials had previously hinted that the state might opt for some sort of power-sharing arrangement, whereby the governor’s appointees would serve alongside Disney’s representatives on the board.
Disney has historically enjoyed tremendous political clout in Florida, as the state’s largest private employer. But the company angered DeSantis and his allies when it came out against the Parental Rights in Education bill last year, which critics have dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.” At the time, then-CEO Bob Chapek faced tremendous backlash from LGBTQ employees for not doing more to oppose the bill sooner.
DeSantis attacked Disney as a “woke” corporation and backed the measure to dissolve the district, saying the company should not enjoy special privileges that are not afforded to other companies in the state.
Disney CEO Bob Iger addressed the issue in November, shortly after he retook the helm of the company. He said he was not yet certain of the impacts of the dissolution, or of what steps Disney might take in response.
“I was sorry to see us dragged into the that battle, and I have no idea exactly what its ramifications are,” Iger said. “What I can say is the state of Florida has been important to us for a long time, and we have been important to the state of Florida.”