By Dan M. Berger
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis consigned Disney World’s self-governing status to the historical dustbin on Feb. 27 as he signed the bill setting up a new board to govern the Central Florida property, one of the world’s premier tourist destinations.
DeSantis staged the bill with a backdrop not of the Magic Kingdom, but of a big yellow fire truck at Reedy Creek Fire Station No. 4. Reedy Creek was the name of Disney’s self-governing district, which had governmental powers unlike those granted to any other business in the state.
“Today is the day the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” DeSantis said.
The state Senate had approved the bill on Feb. 10 after the House passed it the previous day.
The new legislation means Disney will no longer have governmental powers, including the right to tax, to avoid state building and fire codes, to avoid state regulatory reviews and approvals, to issue tax-exempt bonds, and to operate its own utility and emergency services within its 25,000 acres that straddle Orange and Osceola counties.
The measure, which takes effect in June 2023, renames the Reedy Creek Improvement District, dubbing it the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. Its five supervisors will be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Florida Senate.
The new district will continue the old district’s functions, such as those listed above, but under the new organizational structure, and it will remain exempt from property taxes, a detail that has irked some.
Disney has said it won’t resist the new arrangement and will now work with the state, Disney World CEO Jeff Vahle said in a statement.
DeSantis and other speakers who joined him at the podium reviewed a wide range of issues tied into the tussle with the big entertainment company. It was triggered last spring when Disney executives came out against DeSantis’s Parental Rights in Education Law—dubbed by opponents the “Don’t Say Gay” bill—which combats rising wokeness in public schools and taking sexuality education out of parents’ hands.
Jon Shirley, president of the Reedy Creek Firefighters Association (style), accused the company of having sacrificed public safety, obscuring how shorthanded and underfunded first responders like firefighters and paramedics were and how few of their vehicles were ready to go on any given day—despite a $30 million surplus in Reedy Creek’s budget.
Nick Catarano, a long-time and second-generation Disney employee—his uncle went to work there when the park opened in the 1970s—outlined the company’s firing and harassment of employees like himself who didn’t want to get COVID shots or wear masks. He also spoke of his dismay at the shift in Disney’s once-family-friendly content, one that made him proud, to one many families object to.
“Disney has since doubled down and embraced all things woke increasingly making things like sex, gender, race and worse things the core mission of its storytelling. You know, we’ve gone from ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Snow White’ and ‘Pocahontas’ and all these great stories with morals and great characters, and have brought us stuff like ‘Little Demon’ who was the spawn, the child of Satan, as the lead character.”
“We have recently seen the cartoon ‘Proud Family’ on Disney Plus. And that really doesn’t tell the whole truth of what happened in our country. They tried to build a narrative that everything in this country is built on the back of slaves and reparations. And what they’re doing is they’re taking vulnerable children, and they’re indoctrinating them into becoming activists and hating each other.”
Mandy Shafer, a mother who had grown up in the area, said Disney World was interwoven into every aspect of her own youth and now that of her children.
But her family started breaking its ties with Disney in 2020 when they couldn’t tolerate the park’s masking rules and decided to give up their annual passes.
“That was the first step in our divorce from Disney. Through the years it was always wholesome entertainment for the entire family … . I felt safe exposing my children to Disney’s content without fear of evil programming. Then something happened. We became aware that Disney’s content was changing by including and promoting more and more immorality.”
“I simply don’t want Disney, which I once trusted, to teach my child or any children to be comfortable with or participate in immorality.” Disney’s opposing the Parental Rights in Education law, she said, meant “they chose the wrong side of the moral argument and that was the icing on the cake for our family.”
The law completes a journey that began on March 7, 2022, when DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education bill.
That measure was misleadingly tagged the “Don’t Say Gay” law by opponents. It bans the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.
Activists quickly ramped up claims the law was harmful to LGBT children and children with LGBT loved ones. Disney initially steered a center course between LGBT activists demanding the company condemn the law and conservative employees who urged the company to remain neutral on political issues.
Later, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said company leaders had opposed the bill “from the outset, but we chose not to take a public position on it, because we thought we could be more effective working behind-the-scenes, engaging directly with lawmakers.”
But after pressure from LGBT activists saying the company hadn’t gone far enough in its opposition to the bill, Chapek apologized for not coming out against it sooner. He said Disney would cease all political donations in Florida.
Peter Rice, chairman of Disney General Entertainment Content, called the law “a new and painful iteration of a history of discrimination against an already vulnerable group” and “a violation of fundamental human rights.”
Disney called for the bill’s repeal.
Responding to Disney’s amplified condemnation, DeSantis said he’d seek to end the special privileges enjoyed by the entertainment company.
“You’re a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you’re going to marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state?” DeSantis said during an event at a local school in April 2022. “We view that as a provocation, and we’re going to fight back against that.”
Florida lawmakers approved a bill DeSantis signed on April 22, 2022, that would strip Reedy Creek of its unique status, effective June 2023.
The new bill signed on Feb. 17 modified it slightly to include the new district’s governing structure and status of its bonds.
Secret Land Acquisitions
Disney had long enjoyed a unique status for a business.
Brothers Walt and Roy Disney began their secret land acquisitions in the early 1960s, using fictional front companies to buy land.
The project was made public in 1965, and the Reedy Creek district was formed in 1967.
Walt Disney World opened in 1971 bearing the name of its founder, who died before its completion.
Disney World put Orlando on the map.
It transformed the sleepy town of about 200,000 in 1960 into a major metropolis of more than 2 million today. It has the ninth busiest airport in the country and has become a theme-park mecca for travelers from around the globe.
Visiting Disney World’s Magic Kingdom became a mandatory box to check for families with small children.
DeSantis accomplished several things politically with the move to rein in Disney, said Susan MacManus, political science professor emeritus at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
He showed strength to a powerful organization that had publicly opposed him, the Republicans, and parents with children in public schools, MacManus indicated in an email to The Epoch Times.
While Republicans have historically been criticized for being too cozy with Big Business, this was the opposite and put Democrats in the position of defending Disney.
Other business owners who don’t enjoy the same privileges Disney has had are likely to appreciate the move.
And it hasn’t hurt tourism, MacManus said. Disney has announced corporate layoffs, but she pointed out that those are at other locations.
Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, told The Epoch Times in an email that DeSantis views this as a win.
“I believe that it will help him with his presumed goal of attracting more potential Republican voters in a presidential primary, raising more money, and solidifying his image as a conservative fighter,” Jewett wrote.
But DeSantis faces criticism from within his own party, Jewett noted. Some Republicans don’t think he followed through on his promise to remove special privileges, such as the exemption from property taxes.
And “some business folks and libertarians are also leery that the governor punished a company for simply exercising their First Amendment rights,” Jewett wrote.
“I think some business groups and other interests that tend to donate to campaigns also wonder about Governor DeSantis’s loyalty, since Disney has been a longtime supporter of Republicans in Florida [including Governor DeSantis] with millions of dollars in direct contributions and in-kind contributions like theme park tickets and meeting space and yet because of one policy disagreement they were threatened, publicly castigated, and then punished,” Jewett wrote.
“Of course, the desire to be in good graces with Governor DeSantis will probably keep the money flowing, but I think many of those groups will at least have a little bit of a worry in the back of their mind.”
And, he added, Democrats may use the move—putting the new board under the governor’s control, rather than sharing power with local government—to suggest it “as one more piece of evidence that the governor has an authoritarian streak.”