Standing by the stage at a fire station in Florida’s Lake Buena Vista, near Walt Disney World, Governor Ron DeSantis declared victory this week in his ongoing battle against Disney. “Today, the corporate kingdom is finally coming to an end,” he said.
By “Corporate Kingdom,” DeSantis was referring to the sprawling theme park’s longstanding system of self-government, an arrangement established more than 50 years ago that helped land the entertainment giant in Florida and make it the Sunshine State’s largest private employer. of became.
Under the legislation DeSantis signed into law Monday, the state of Florida took control of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which essentially operated as Disney’s private municipal government in the area that includes Walt Disney World and other parks. The move is widely seen as retaliation against Disney after the company, faced with internal pressure, criticized a Florida education law known by critics as “Don’t Say Gay” for its restrictions on classroom education on gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade. figure.
The district formerly known as Reedy Creek now has a new name and a board whose members are hand-picked by DeSantis. Under the previous system, the Reedy Creek board was essentially selected by Disney.
For DeSantis, who uses the Burbank entertainment company as a foil for cultural issues, the move is a public relations coup among conservatives as politicians widely expect him to run for president in 2024. It came just as DeSantis was about to publish his book. , “The courage to be free.”
But what did Disney actually lose from its battle with DeSantis?
While the new law brings with it a number of important changes, the most crucial is the cancellation of a previous mandate that would have led to the total dissolution of the district. That earlier law, which DeSantis and state lawmakers passed in a sprint across the finish line last spring, would have saddled taxpayers in Orange and Osceola counties, the two counties Disney straddles, with county debt.
“That was something that a lot of people were concerned about,” said Jacob Schumer, an attorney who specializes in Florida’s local government and tax laws. written about the bond loan. “Nothing is going to change. The disaster that would hit the county and the taxpayers here, except Disney, won’t hit them.
Representatives from Disney and DeSantis did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
But the law does change who controls the government overseeing Disney’s kingdom in the state, which could herald impending battles as tensions mount between the company, which increasingly embraces progressive social issues, and the conservative state that is embarking on a crusade. has led. against what it describes as “awakened ideology.”
The new roster of board members, whom DeSantis named Monday includes Bridget Ziegler, a conservative education activist and co-founder of the right-wing group Moms for Liberty; Ron Peri, president of the Gathering USA, a Christian ministry; and three lawyers, including the president of the Orlando chapter of the Federalist Society.
“He appointed cultural warriors, Christian national types. That’s no exaggeration,” said Richard Foglesong, a political scientist and author of “Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando.”
In recent years, Disney has overhauled its products and theme parks, drawing the ire of conservatives. Visitors to the Magic Kingdom fireworks show are now greeted with a gender-neutral greeting, a departure from previous welcomes addressing “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls.” The company has also refurbished older rides that have been criticized as insensitive, including the Jungle Cruise and Pirates of the Caribbean, and is transforming Splash Mountain into a new “Princess and the Frog” themed ride after years of complaints about the racism prevalent in “Song of the South”, the 1946 movie that inspired the ride.
The appointees — whom Foglesong likened to appointees at airport authorities or a public works department — have no say in Disney’s products. But they could leverage their position in Florida’s ongoing culture war with Disney in future requests the company makes for roads, new projects or other ventures.
“It seems like a combustible mix to me to have people who are censors working as supervisors for a branch of the Walt Disney company,” Foglesong said.
The law also changed the name of the special district from the Reedy Creek Improvement District to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. In addition, the bill removed some other peripheral privileges, such as prohibiting Disney from building a nuclear power plant or an airport at the resort, which the company would likely never use.
“I think (Disney is) more threatened now than I thought they would be,” Foglesong said, pointing to the list of appointees. The New College of Florida at Sarasotawhere DeSantis embarks on a mission to transform the small, progressive school into a model of conservatism is a cautionary tale, he added.
But in other ways, it’s mostly business as usual, at least for now, experts say. Many essential privileges that made Reedy Creek unique remain intact, including the ability to issue bonds. “Those are the special things about what Reedy Creek did,” Schumer said.
Reedy Creek was born in part from the lessons that brothers Walt and Roy Disney learned from operating Disneyland in Anaheim, which opened in 1955. Their ambitions were curtailed by government bureaucracy, as they had to work with the city for public services and zoning. When the brothers wanted to increase Disney’s footprint — only 10% of the people coming to Disneyland in California came from east of the Mississippi River — they wanted to have their own self-regulatory system. The company eventually settled in Florida and worked with legislators to create the Reedy Creek Improvement District in 1967. The theme park opened a few years later in 1971.
Spanning approximately 40 square miles in Orange and Osceola counties, the district provides everything from fire protection and emergency medical services to water systems, flood control and power generation. Its boundaries include four theme parks, two water parks, a sports complex, 175 miles of roadway, the towns of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, utility centers, more than 40,000 hotel rooms and hundreds of restaurants and shops, according to the website.
What lies ahead for Disney remains to be seen. DeSantis has called on the board to propose additional changes to authorities and waivers in a year and again in five years, Foglesong noted.
“Maybe over time (DeSantis) will be able to take another bite of the apple and take away powers and waivers that the Disney company still has,” Foglesong said.
Times staff writer Ryan Faughnder and associated press contributed to this report.