TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The fight between the state of Florida and the Walt Disney Company over the status of the Reedy Creek Improvement District is intensifying, following a new announcement from the governor.
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a new plan to change how the quasi-governmental control of the land surrounding Walt Disney World is run. Rather than allow the Reedy Creek Improvement District to propose a plan for regaining its special district status, as required by the special session which stripped it away, DeSantis is instead proposing a state-controlled board be put in place.
RCID has been the governing body for the land that surrounds Disney’s Florida operation since the 1960s when the Walt Disney Company made a deal with the state to come into the area between Orange and Osceola counties and build the resort and nearby cities.
“People have to remember that the pitch to create Reedy Creek was Disney saying, ‘We’ll build a city if you give us city powers,’’’ and then they didn’t build a city. I think they intended to. I don’t think it was bad faith, but they didn’t follow through,” Rep. Randy Fine (R-Brevard) told Nexstar’s WFLA.com in December.
Fine authored the legislation that stripped special districts of their status if they were created before Florida’s state constitution was ratified in 1968.
“In fact, the two times they created a city, in the case of Golden Oak and in the case of Celebration, they actually kicked those areas out of the special district,” he said at the time.
The deal between Florida and Disney was largely untouched until 2022 when the company came out against House Bill 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, decried as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its opponents and intended to limit discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public school classrooms for students younger than third grade.
Following Disney’s response to the bill, even saying they sought to have it repealed, DeSantis and state lawmakers drew their line in the sand and introduced the special districts bill. The governor has since continued on his path of targeting what he calls “woke corporations.”
The ripple effect of Disney’s protracted fight with Florida over the bill added to pressures on then-CEO Bob Chapek. His predecessor, Bob Iger, returned to company leadership in November.
After the switch in CEO, some state lawmakers said reconciliation was a possibility, with bill author Randy Fine (R-Brevard) saying a new CEO meant a potential for new discussion.
“I think it’s easier to move forward with the guy who didn’t make the mistake than the guy who did,” Fine told WFLA.com shortly after Iger’s return. “Iger, I think, has already acknowledged it was an error, and that we move forward.”
However, DeSantis said through a spokesperson that there would be “no U-turns.”
Now, that stance has not only remained but has gotten more rigid.
Friday’s announcement of plans to introduce new legislation that would create a board to oversee the Reedy Creek Improvement District complicates the politics surrounding Disney in Florida.
As written, the bill that stripped Disney and the other districts of their authority created a mechanism for renewal. The districts would have to submit new filings to regain the status or preserve it, albeit with the potential for change. Now, however, DeSantis is singling out Walt Disney World directly, whether in the coming general session or a special session afterward.
Regardless of how Disney’s resubmission process goes, it appears the governor is not willing to keep the status quo, even with adjustment. If the legislation DeSantis is seeking is written and passed in the state legislature, the advisory board would control everything from managing bond obligations to taxation to permits and regulations, as well as District boundaries, names, and other governmental activities currently handled by the existing system.
The goal would be to amend, reenact, and repeal existing Florida law regarding RCID, as well as create more state oversight, accountability, and transparency in the district, while removing or revising powers it currently holds, according to the announcement.
In response to the request for comment on the announced legislative intention, Taryn Fenske, the governor’s communications director, provided the following statement:
“The corporate kingdom has come to an end. Under the proposed legislation, Disney will no longer control its own government, will live under the same laws as everyone else, will be responsible for their outstanding debts, and will pay their fair share of taxes. Imposing a state-controlled board will also ensure that Orange County cannot use this issue as a pretext to raise taxes on Orange County residents.”
WFLA has reached out for additional comment from both the Walt Disney Company and the Reedy Creek Improvement District.