The Florida legislature led by Republicans on Thursday passed a bill to cancel the special tax district of Walt Disney World in the state, a decision with billion-dollar implications for the company and the communities that surround the theme park.
The bill was passed with no debate in a rushed party-line vote on the floor, and its impact is still unclear. A legislative staff analysis of the proposal was only a page and a half long, and stakeholders, including the counties that house the sprawling Disney entertainment complex, didn’t have time to do their own analyses.
“People are definitely worried. This is going to be a major disrupter in our community, and nobody has had the chance to figure out exactly what that will look like,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani (D), whose district includes parts of Orange County, where most of the Disney property in Florida is located. “Everything about this reflects the fact that we have a governor who is a bully who punishes those that oppose him.”
Disney employs nearly 80,000 workers at its Florida location, the most popular theme park in the world. Its creation helped lure other attractions to the area, transforming a community of orange groves into a booming tourism industry with an estimated economic impact of more than $75 billion a year.
Even Republican supporters said the swift passage of the bill surprised them. Rep. Spencer Roach (R) said he was planning to introduce a similar bill next year, but “lo and behold, Governor DeSantis came through.”
“The fact is that we were actually able to touch the politically untouchable Disney,” Roach said. “Ron DeSantis, whether you love him or hate him, you have to acknowledge his political instincts are finely, finely tuned. I applaud the governor for having the courage to add this to the agenda.”
DeSantis started feuding with the Walt Disney Company nearly a month ago, when chief executive Bob Chapek issued a statement criticizing a parental rights law that prohibits discussions of gender issues in public school classes up to third grade and potentially through high school. Since then, DeSantis has lambasted what he described as a “woke ideology” at the company.
Earlier this week, the governor issued a proclamation calling for the repeal of a 1967 deal that allowed the company to become its own local government on the 40-square-mile property that Walt Disney bought earlier that decade. The Reedy Creek Improvement District allows Disney to bypass local building ordinances and some other rules, and also made it responsible for public services such as fire and rescue, sewage treatment, and road maintenance.
The bill to unravel the special district would not take effect until June 2023, giving Disney and lawmakers an off-ramp. “This is a repealable bill,” Roach said. “It doesn’t take more than the stroke of a pen to undo it. We’ll see what happens next.”
Disney has not commented on the legislation. The company, which has donated millions of dollars to politicians in Florida, mostly Republicans, paused donations in the state after the parental rights bill passed.
Hours after the measure passed the House, DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw took to Twitter to attack Disney’s opposition to what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, writing, “Disney is a corporation that built a family-friendly brand for generations, and inexplicably threw it away to advocate for teaching kids in K-3 about ‘pansexual’ & ‘genderqueer.’”
DeSantis has used his opposition to Disney as a fundraising theme this week, writing in one email: “Friend, I will never allow woke corporations to strong-arm our state.”
State Sen. Victor Torres (D), whose district includes Osceola County, where Disney headquarters is located, said he thinks the company could be rethinking its political contribution approach. “I think this will open their eyes and let them see that, you know what? Maybe we’ve been giving money to the wrong folks,” he said. “They will assess what they need to do, but when you get bit by the snake, you know what the snake is all about.”
Other Democrats echoed that prediction. “The fields of Florida are littered with the bodies of people who opposed Disney,” said Broward County Commissioner Steve Geller, a Democrat and former state representative. “Disney is certainly the biggest employer in the state. The most powerful politically. Governor DeSantis may be making a tactical good move, but a strategic bad one.”
On the campaign trail, Democrats vowed to use the maneuver against DeSantis. At a campaign event Thursday in Fort Lauderdale, Rep. Charlie Crist, the front-runner in the August Democratic primary in the governor’s race, blasted both DeSantis for taking on Disney and Republican legislators for so easily acquiescing to his demands.
Crist, who served as Florida governor from 2007 to 2011, said the feud with Disney demonstrates that the governor “only cares about himself.”
“I can’t believe he is doing it. I really can’t. This is an institution in our state and it’s an institution in our country,” said Crist, recounting when his parents first took him and his siblings to Disney World in the early 1970s. “It was the happiest place on earth. I don’t think it’s the happiest place on earth with this governor.” The Republican governor is leading in the polls, and has raised more than $100 million for his election campaign.
Local business owners who cater to tourists brought in by Disney and the other theme parks are unsure of whether the new legislation will impact them.
Rawlvan Bennett, who owns the Bronze Kingdom art gallery on International Drive, the busy tourist strip in Orlando, said watching DeSantis and Republican lawmakers seemingly target a specific business is chilling. He added, “Even if you agree with the government’s positions, you should not agree with retaliation against Disney.”
The Biden administration, which opposed the parental rights bill for what critics say is a potentially harmful impact on LGBTQ youth, also condemned the Disney law on Thursday. “We oppose the governor taking action against a company because of their opposition to that bill,” said Karine Jean Pierre, a White House spokeswoman.
Republicans in Tallahassee said local communities could benefit from the unraveling of the Disney district. Senate President Wilton Simpson (R) said it could be “an economic boon” to central Florida. “I don’t know how the end will come, but I know that this a very worthy process that we’re undertaking, and I think that whatever comes out of it will be better than what we have today,” he said.
But local officials say if they are forced to take over the public services done by Disney, such as road maintenance, they will instead have to raise property taxes. Disney has an estimated $1 billion in debt obligations, along with the more than $160 million a year spent on public services, which would shift to local governments when Reedy Creek is officially dissolved next year.
“If we had to take over the first response, the public safety components for Reedy Creek with no new revenue, that would be catastrophic for our budget here within Orange County,” Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said. “It would put an undue burden on the rest of the taxpayers in Orange County to fill that gap.”
Demings said he doesn’t know how that relationship would ultimately play out; county staff was still examining the language in the bill and trying to make sense of the impact. He said it was “obvious” that lawmakers were enacting political retribution. “The devil’s in the details,” he said. “We quite simply today do not have the details.”
Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said he is confident Disney will do everything it can to ensure a smooth transition if it is forced to use other providers of the services that Reedy Creek provides now.
“Having said that, maybe everything they can won’t be good enough,” he said. “When you’re used to operating in one way for 50-plus years and then that changes, even the best companies and well-run companies and well-meaning companies might run into unforeseen problems delivering services.”
Eric Adelson in Orlando contributed to this report.