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Ron DeSantis signs bill giving him control over Disney’s district in major political victory

By Ben Marquis
|
February 28, 2023

Nearly a year ago, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) became embroiled in a political battle with Disney after the corporation with special self-governing privileges publicly aligned itself against a law DeSantis favored that protects parental rights in the state's education system.

Gov. DeSantis was just victorious in that battle as he signed into law on Monday a bill that dramatically reforms and imposes state control over the unique Reedy Creek Improvement District in central Florida where the Walt Disney World resort and theme parks are located, CNN reported.

Whereas the special district first established in 1967 had granted Disney self-governing autonomy and a wide range of unique privileges and exemptions from state law, the district will now be subject to all of the same laws and codes as everybody else and be governed by a board appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate.

Big changes on the way for Disney

"Allowing a corporation to control its own government is bad policy, especially when the corporation makes decisions that impact an entire region," Gov. DeSantis said in a statement Monday. "This legislation ends Disney’s self-governing status, makes Disney live under the same laws as everybody else, and ensures that Disney pays its debts and fair share of taxes."

According to the press release, the new law ends Disney's self-governing status and special privileges, its exemption from the state's building and fire prevention codes, and its exemption from the state's regulatory review and approval process.

It also ensures corporate transparency and that Disney pays its taxes due -- but prohibits local governments from raising taxes -- as well as that Disney, and not local taxpayers, pay the corporation's municipal debts.

In addition to signing the law reforming the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which will soon be renamed as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, DeSantis also announced his five appointees to the board that will control the district, each of whom must be confirmed by the Florida Senate.

The "corporate kingdom" has ended

The Daily Mail reported that Gov. DeSantis, during a bill-signing ceremony Monday, said that the "corporate kingdom finally comes to an end" and that "the State of Florida is the new sheriff in town."

"I got a lot on my plate, I can't be running this from the governor's office," he said with regard to the newly appointed board. "So we've created a state governing board that is going to be responsible for governing this area."

"They've got a lot of work to do. They know what our vision is," DeSantis added. "OK, yes, Disney no longer has its own government, but you've got to ensure that all of these laws are applied, you've got to ensure the debt is paid, you've got to ensure the fair share of taxes are paid."

As for the prior special preferential treatment Disney had received from the state, the governor said, "How do you give one theme park its own government and then treat all the other theme parks differently?"

He added, "Disney is gonna be treated like Sea World is treated, or like any of these others. And that's really the fair thing to do."

Disney says it is "ready to work within this new framework"

The Daily Mail noted that controversy had first erupted last year when Disney's then-CEO Bob Chapek had publicly spoken out against the Parental Rights in Education bill that Gov. DeSantis signed into law and that simply prohibits schools from discussing age-inappropriate topics like gender ideology and sexual orientation with young school children.

That led to an initial stripping of the special Reedy Creek Improvement District by the state legislature and now the more permanent rollback of the unique privileges and exemptions Disney had been granted more than five decades ago when the Magic Kingdom was still just a dream of Walt Disney.

In response to DeSantis signing the state takeover of the district into law, CNN reported that Walt Disney World Resort President Jeff Vahle said in a statement that the corporation was "ready to work within this new framework, and we will continue to innovate, inspire, and bring joy to the millions of guests who come to Florida to visit Walt Disney World each year."

That positive statement aside, it will be key to watch how Disney actually reacts to the changes once they are put in place, as it is among the state's largest employers and revenue producers and continues to wield enormous influence over lawmakers -- albeit not quite enough to protect its now-former special self-governing status.