Florida governor Ron DeSantis has taken quite the stand trying to get back at Disney for speaking out against the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill—something that only happened after members of the LGBTQIA+ community and its allies put pressure on the company through protests which received an outpouring of support nationwide.
DeSantis responded this week by calling a special legislative session which voted to end Walt Disney World’s special district privileges, created in 1967 as the “Reedy Creek Improvement District.” Essentially, the vote revokes the Disney Company’s ability to run what amounts to its own city without bureaucratic interference—but it could also pass $1 billion in municipal debt to surrounding counties.
Reedy Creek is presently is its own district entity within Florida where Walt Disney World exists. It handles its own infrastructures, including but not limited to fire and sheriff contracts, waste disposal systems, and city works that approve its permits as well as road construction. And yes, it’s been how Disney has bypassed the state for approvals on expansions and hotel builds for Walt Disney World for the past several decades.
The special district was originally set in motion to aid Walt Disney’s plans for EPCOT as he described in 1966, which he wanted to build as an example of a sustainable city of the future. With the Florida Project, he dreamed of creating a new urban community where American free enterprise could test the latest innovations, with the aim of beginning to fix problems that suburban sprawl and the car industry were ignoring. At the time, Florida was all in with Disney’s ambitious idea—as long as there was still a theme park aspect to draw tourists. However, the special district only went through after Disney’s death in late 1966, and has since been used as a way to cut through red tape and hasten construction plans with minimal state and county interference. The only remnants of some of Walt’s old plans exist in its transportation system, its comprehensive recycling program, its commitment to wildlife preservation, and some aspects of its park-to-table food service—a highlight of EPCOT’s “Living with the Land” attraction is learning about how Disney farms on its own property for some of its vegetation and fish. It offers pure nostalgia for retro futurism amid the IP-heavy escapes of just about everything else in the park.
Thanks to Reedy Creek, Disney has been able to operate as an independent entity—and it has also been paying exorbitant property taxes in Orange and Osceola, the counties that its land touches. Bloomberg reported that if Reedy Creek is dissolved, it will come at a huge cost to Florida taxpayers: one billion dollars of debt for 27 square miles of land that they don’t really need to have a responsibility for. In other words, it feels like Florida is going to shoot now and realize it—and its residents—are bleeding out later.
The Walt Disney Company under current CEO Bob Chapek came under fire for initially not speaking out against Florida’s HB 1777 legislature, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which was supported by politicians who’d received Disney donations. (Chapek later announced the company was “pausing” those donations.) Eventually, Disney released a statement against the bill—but only after it had passed, and after considerable public scrutiny. “Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that,” it read. “We are dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Florida and across the country.” The company went on to reinstate a kiss between a same-sex couple in Pixar’s Lightyear.
No word on whether or not Disney is still expecting employees to relocate to its new campus in Lake Nona, Florida—particularly if they feel they or their families are at risk if they identify as LGBTQ+. Currently the “Don’t Say Gay” restricts discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms. Additionally, the Florida Health Dept. has outlined the following for anyone living in the state: “Social gender transition should not be a treatment option for children or adolescents.”
In regards to the future of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, it’s up to the Florida House to make the final decision on who will pay the price—specifically the billion-dollar bond debt. “As a bondholder, we worry about who is going to pay us back,” said Evgenia Lando, a portfolio manager for Thornburg Investment Management, to Bloomberg on how it may fall upon the local surrounding governments to absorb the blow. But even she though thinks it’s just a show, “it’s definitely headlines and noise; it’s nothing you want attached to an entity.”
As of Thursday the bill that could dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District was pushed through the Florida House of Representatives for DeSantis to sign in a 70-38 vote. Ultimately, however it will come down to a vote between the residents of Reedy Creek. The likelihood of it not passing and being struck down seems high, as taxpayers may prefer to not have to shoulder a behemoth industry that functions fairly well as its own municipal government and provides jobs while driving the state’s economy. So this could be very neatly wrapped up in a mutual deal between Disney and Orange County constituents. DeSantis, who’s said to have hopes of a Republican presidential bid in 2024, maybe just be setting himself up to take his own bait—and the fall.
We reached out to Walt Disney Company for a comment on the vote, and will update this post if and when we get a response.
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