The Walt Disney Co. says it's coming to our area to build a theme park that celebrates the nation's history and heritage. But the company has a peculiar notion of a crucial element of that heritage -- democracy.
When Disney constructed a major theme park in Florida's Orange and Osceola counties, it pressured the Florida legislature and governor to approve an extraordinary governmental arrangement created for, controlled by and operated for its exclusive benefit. To this day, citizens of both those counties are denied numerous governance rights enjoyed by people elsewhere in the country.
Because times and circumstances have changed, it's not likely that the Disney organization will seek -- or receive -- similar special treatment from Virginia's legislature and governor or from the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. But several references in The Post's Nov. 12 front-page story about the company's intention to build a Virginia park present disturbing similarities with the Florida precedent.
The Post account said Disney had selected as its local law firm for the project a legal concern that "pioneered the use of special taxing districts for road improvements in Northern Virginia." The story also said the Disney proposal will benefit from "a fast-track zoning process" at the county level.
In Florida, a fast-track procedure created three special governmental entities for Disney's exclusive use: the Reedy Creek Improvement District, whose boundaries are virtually conterminous with the borders of Disney's 27,400-acre tract, and the incorporated "towns" of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista.
Inside Bay Lake are Walt Disney World's "Magic Kingdom" and Epcot Center, a campground and Disney's hotels. Within Lake Buena Vista are stores, condominiums, offices, hotels, motels, restaurants and other commercial properties owned by Disney and by other companies.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District includes both communities as well as thousands of additional Disney-owned acres, which remain available for expansion.
Governing the entire district is the Reedy Creek Act, drafted by Disney lawyers, enacted by the Florida legislature with almost no dissent and signed into law by then-Gov. Claude Kirk Jr. in 1967.
That statute, along with municipal ordinances enacted by the Disney-controlled Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake city councils, gave the Disney organization extraordinary powers, rights and privileges. Among them:
* Exemption from most state and county land-use laws, zoning statutes, building regulations and development restrictions.
* Special police powers, including authority to detain anyone deemed to be "causing a public nuisance" or to forcibly remove from Disney's property anyone the company regards as undesirable. In such cases, the law exempts Disney from being accused (much less convicted) of false arrest.
* Power of eminent domain -- the right to condemn property owned by others "for any of the projects of the district," regardless of whether the property lies inside or outside Disney's existing boundaries.
* Authority to treat Disney World's private streets and parking lots as public roads for law enforcement purposes, thus allowing the corporation to establish and enforce speed limits and other traffic statutes as though it were a police department.
* Power to issue millions of dollars worth of tax-exempt municipal bonds to pay for improvements on Disney's property, to levy real estate taxes, to build roads, to control public safety functions and to operate water, sewage, waste disposal, sanitation and other facilities.
Most members of the Reedy Creek Improvement District Board of Supervisors and the two city councils traditionally have been Disney employees, contractors and others beholden to the company. The supervisors are elected not through popular plebiscite but by land owners -- and Disney owns almost all the land.
State and local officials acquiesced to Disney's demands because they were dazzled by the prospect of the thousands of jobs the park would create and the millions of tourists it would attract. But that carrot was accompanied by a stick. Roy Disney, Walt's brother, was quoted as saying in the mid-1960s: "If this legislation does not pass, there will be no Disney in Florida."
Thus, Disney World in Florida has ersatz government to accompany its equally artificial Adventureland, Frontierland and Fantasyland.
The Civil War, Crossroads USA, State Fair, Family Farm and other features planned for Disney's America in Virginia won't be any more authentic. But local and state residents ought to vigilantly guard against another venture in simulated democracy. -- Robert Walters is a Washington reporter.