The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florida lawmakers greenlight DeSantis takeover of Disney’s special tax district

The Republican governor was also given new authority over the state’s controversial migrant flights.

The Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom. (John Raoux/AP)
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Florida lawmakers granted Gov. Ron DeSantis new power over Disney on Friday during a special session aimed at fixing problems with some of the rising Republican leader’s most controversial signature initiatives.

Legislators approved a bill that creates a new special tax district entirely composed of DeSantis appointees to oversee the land on which Disney’s amusement parks operate in Florida — effectively giving the governor influence over operations ranging from tax collection and garbage pickup to construction and planning.

The takeover comes nearly a year after DeSantis demanded the state dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the Disney-controlled board in place since 1967. The district has similar powers to a county government, making it easier for the corporation to grow its enterprise and avoid state bureaucracy.

DeSantis wanted the arrangement — pushed by Walt Disney himself — to be terminated after Disney corporate executives criticized a bill he championed that prevents teachers from discussing gender and sexual orientation in early grades. Critics dubbed the legislation the “don’t say gay” bill, and Disney leaders vowed to help repeal it.

But dissolving the taxing district could have left taxpayers on the hook for Disney’s more than $1 billion in bond debt. In response, DeSantis called a special session to consider a 189-page bill to replace the Reedy Creek board with a new authority called the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. People who have worked at Disney within the last three years will not be allowed on it.

“The district is basically exactly the same, but now Disney World will go from being abnormally independent to being abnormally controlled,” said Jacob Schumer, an attorney in Central Florida who specializes in local government matters. “They still get their special little district with taxes that can pay for lavish roads and luxury projects. But they’re no longer pulling the strings.”

Separately, lawmakers also passed a bill allowing the DeSantis administration to transport migrants from anywhere in the United States as part of its program to remove “unauthorized aliens” from Florida. The governor made headlines last year when he chartered two flights to transport migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.

DeSantis justified the initiative by saying the new arrivals were intending to go to Florida. State lawmakers had approved the funds specifically to transport migrants “from this state,” raising questions about whether the flights were legal. The new measure closes a Florida loophole but is likely to fuel additional questions about the program’s legality.

Legislators also bolstered DeSantis’s ability to bring election fraud cases to court by passing a bill that clearly specifies that statewide prosecutors have jurisdiction. DeSantis launched an election crimes unit last year that has made few arrests and sparked criticism of abuse of power and discrimination. Several cases have already been dismissed on grounds that statewide prosecutors did not have the authority to try those cases.

All three measures underscore DeSantis’s insistence on pushing some of his thorniest legislative initiatives as he gears up for a possible presidential run. It also highlights the ease with which he has been able to pass laws and adjustments through the Republican-controlled legislature.

GOP supporters said the Disney takeover is a way to make sure the company doesn’t have a competitive advantage — a concern shared by some Democrats. But critics also characterized the move as a hostile act by DeSantis against a major corporation that fought him on a signature part of his “anti-woke” platform.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat, said she has long been opposed to what she called the “perks” Disney enjoys in central Florida and agreed with GOP lawmakers in wanting to put the company on par with other businesses. Nonetheless, she expressed concern about the possibility that DeSantis would use his influence to assert inordinate control over the corporation.

“What if Disney decides to do a movie that features a trans kid? Is DeSantis going to try to cancel that and wield his board to censor Disney’s media arm again?” Eskamani said. “This is not where this stops. This is where it starts.”

The new district will be responsible for the same public services Reedy Creek currently provides, including trash collection, wastewater management and road maintenance at Magic Kingdom and Disney’s other parks. But DeSantis said the board could also potentially raise taxes and joked, confidently, before the bill’s passage that, “Maybe we’ll do some more for the resident discount, who knows?”

“There’s a new sheriff in town,” DeSantis said at a news conference days before the legislation was passed. “And that’s just the way it’s going to be.”

Disney said little about the legislation. After the bill’s passage, Walt Disney World Resort President Jeff Vahle defended Reedy Creek, saying that for five decades the district has helped Disney grow and “operated at the highest standards.”

“We are focused on the future and are ready to work within this new framework, and we will continue to innovate, inspire and bring joy to the millions of guests who come to Florida to visit Walt Disney World each year,” Vahle said in an email statement.

DeSantis and members of the GOP-led state legislature said the law will put Disney on par with other theme parks in Florida, such as Universal and SeaWorld. Those attractions were built in and near Orlando after Walt Disney made central Florida a top tourist destination, but neither runs a special governing district.

The Reedy Creek tax district was key to attracting Walt Disney to build his new theme park in Florida. It allowed Disney to bypass some local regulations, collect taxes, issue bonds, and even build a nuclear power plant, stadium or airport on the sprawling property, if it ever chose to do so. The new board maintains most of those powers, though it will lose the right to construct a nuclear plant.

Critics for years have questioned Disney’s powerful influence in the region and with state lawmakers. The company’s massive economic impact in Florida quelled most dissent.

Some lawmakers wonder what will happen to Magic Kingdom, Epcot and other Disney properties now that the state has control over roads and other projects.

“This new board could put a highway right through Disney if they wanted, which is something that Disney would have never allowed,” said state Sen. Linda Stewart, a Democrat who represents Orange County, which includes Orlando. “Disney has a five-year plan on how they want to see the park grow. They have infrastructure plans. They want to put a solar grid up. But that might take more land, and it’s unclear if this new board will allow that.”

She also expressed concern that DeSantis was acting in response to the company’s position on one bill and, in response, “going to tear apart a successful business model.”

“I have agreed with DeSantis in the past when he said government should stay out of business,” she said. “I still believe that, but apparently that is no longer his mantra.”

GOP state Rep. Randy Fine, who sponsored the bill last year to dissolve Reedy Creek, described the Disney bill as “both a very big deal and not as big a deal.”

“It’s not as big a deal because the powers of that special district will continue similar to what they are today,” Fine said during the legislative debate. “But it is a huge deal because we are eliminating something that no other citizen, no other company as far as I know in the United States has — a company that has the right to govern itself.”