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Florida’s DeSantis steps up pressure on Disney World

Last year’s fight over LGBTQ talk in Florida schools continues to play out

The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in January 2019. (John Raoux/AP)
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signaled Friday he plans to ask state officials to exert control over special local government powers once held by Disney World — a fresh sign that last year’s fight over talking about LGBTQ issues in Florida’s schools is far from over.

A notice published on a Florida county government website said state lawmakers would be asked to vote during the upcoming legislative session on increasing the state’s oversight of the taxing district that governs Florida’s largest theme park.

Teen LGBTQ rights activist Will Larkins spoke to The Post about fighting this controversial bill less than a month after it was signed into law. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

DeSantis signed a bill last year eliminating Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement Disrict after he berated the company for opposing a law he had pushed that limits how educators discuss LGBTQ issues in the classroom. The district allows Disney to operate as a quasi-government agency, building roads and collecting taxes. Experts warned scratching the arrangement would have dire economic consequences.

Taryn Fenske, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, announced the proposed legislation Friday with a tweet saying, “The corporate kingdom has come to an end.”

Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

How DeSantis used Disney’s missteps to wage war on corporate America

Disputes over “improvement districts” rarely attract notice. But the fight over this particular district has garnered national headlines as it is widely viewed as a proxy war between DeSantis and Disney following the company’s outspoken objections to the controversial Parental Rights in Education Act — dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill by opponents.

Disney had opposed the measure banning the teaching of gender-related issues to children younger than third grade.

DeSantis made it into a culture-war issue, calling the company “woke Disney” and saying it had “crossed the line.”

State Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican who sponsored the bill to dissolve Reedy Creek, said that the notice published Friday is far from being a bill and that many details still need to be negotiated.

“What this shows is that work is being done and the bill will be coming down the pike,” Fine said. “The goal is to make this special district just like every other special district in the state.”

Reedy Creek was created more than 50 years ago at the behest of Walt Disney, who envisioned building a “city of tomorrow” on citrus groves in Florida that would include housing and other businesses that would, in part, support his ambitious theme park plans. Residents would be able to vote on how Reedy Creek operated.

Walt Disney World took off and became the most popular theme park in the world, but the two small incorporated cities within its boundaries became home to only a few dozen people to vote on Reedy Creek issues — and all of the voters were connected to Disney.

Disney’s near-total control of the 25,000 acres surrounding its Florida theme parks has rankled some local officials for years, but the company’s powerful lobbying influence in Tallahassee insulated it from proposals that would force it to allow more local oversight.

Fine said more details will come out when a bill is proposed in the coming weeks ahead of the state’s legislative session in March.

DeSantis has said local counties and the state will not raise taxes to cover the $100 million in annual operating expenses and more than $1 billion in debt currently handled by Reedy Creek. But details are unclear on how the finances will be managed.

Jacob Schumer, an attorney in Central Florida who specializes in bond markets, said he doesn’t expect major changes to the way Disney has always operated in Florida.

“Reedy Creek is going to be special, no matter what as long as it continues to exist,” Schumer said. “They aren’t going to do anything major, because doing something major would give the bond holders and the federal government a case against the state.”