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Timeline: Disney’s road from governing itself to GOP stripping its status

A person wearing a mouse costume holds a Gov. Ron DeSantis sign at Walt Disney World in Orlando on April 16. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)
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The Florida state legislature passed a bill that would strip Disney of its special tax status. The move comes shortly after Disney criticized the legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) over a controversial bill — dubbed “don’t say gay” by its critics — restricting discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in schools.

At issue is the half-century-old special status given to the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which effectively gives Disney governing power over a significant chunk of Central Florida. If the district is dissolved, the services that Disney finances within its boundaries — including law enforcement and utilities — could fall to the surrounding towns and counties, as could Reedy Creek’s debts.

Critics have accused DeSantis of retaliating against Disney for exercising its right to political speech. DeSantis has said it’s not retaliation, even as he has railed against Disney in recent weeks, because he opposes such special statuses more broadly. (The bill also would dismantle five other special districts Florida established before 1968, including the Marion County Law Library and the Sunshine Water Control District.)

Disney, the state’s biggest one-site employer, is a huge political force in Florida, given its impact on the state’s economy. Republicans — who have received the lion’s share of campaign contributions from Disney in the recent past — have begun returning those donations.

Disney’s powerful status has been a political issue before — but nothing like what we’re seeing today.

Below is a timeline of relevant events.

The mid-1960s: Disney begins secretly buying land in Central Florida.

1967: The state legislature works with Disney to create a special taxing district, called the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which essentially makes Disney akin to a county government covering 40 square miles of land for its planned development. Disney would gain the authority to govern itself and levy taxes but also would be required to build the infrastructure needed in the then-remote area. It would be exempt from land-use and zoning laws and have both eminent domain and policing powers. The move was meant to prevent taxpayers from having to foot the bill for extensive costs of infrastructure and public services, and also to resolve issues stemming from the fact that Disney’s land spanned two existing counties.

A 2009 paper in the Florida State Law Review summarized how the district “ 'reimagined’ the Traditional Division of Local Regulatory Powers.”

1989-1990: Disney wins $57 million worth of tax-free bonds to upgrade its sewage treatment — all the money available across six counties in the Orlando area. Local officials cry foul and unsuccessfully sue, saying they wanted to use the money for affordable housing. Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner calls the officials incompetent but later apologizes.

1990s: Religious groups criticize Disney for allowing Gay Day (which Disney itself doesn’t organize).

1995: A Southern Baptist group launches a boycott of Disney over the company’s extending health insurance to same-sex partners of its workers. The boycott lasts for nearly a decade.

2021: Florida lawmakers pass a bill regulating social media platforms, adding a last-minute amendment to exempt companies that own theme parks so that Disney will be unaffected. Courts have blocked the law.

Feb. 24, 2022: The state House passes House Bill 1557 — dubbed by critics the “don’t say gay” bill. The bill would prevent schoolteachers from teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation from kindergarten through third grade, and would prohibit such instruction in a way that is not “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” in other grades. Parents who believe teachers have violated the law would be allowed to sue. Critics, including some conservatives, say the law is unnecessarily broad and would prevent teachers from broaching such discussions at all — or even referring to their same-sex partners — for fear of being sued.

March 7: Disney chief executive Bob Chapek sends a letter to employees stating that the company will take no position on the bill.

March 8: The Florida Senate passes the bill, sending it to DeSantis’s desk for his signature.

March 9: After an internal backlash, Chapek announces that Disney will oppose the legislation.

March 10: DeSantis signals a battle with Disney, saying he won’t back down in the face of its opposition and calling the company “woke.” He accuses Disney of being unconcerned about human rights abuses in China because of its business interests there. (The clash echoes recent ones between companies that opposed GOP bills restricting voting rights after the 2020 election.)

March 11: Chapek apologizes to Disney workers, saying, “It is clear that this is not just an issue about a bill in Florida, but instead yet another challenge to basic human rights.”

March 21: After workers continue to label the company’s response insufficient, Chapek holds a town hall to address the controversy.

March 28: DeSantis signs the bill. Chapek releases a statement saying, “Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts.”

March 29: DeSantis issues a scathing rebuke of Disney, saying it doesn’t “run this state” and that it “will never run this state as long as I’m governor.”

March 31: GOP lawmakers indicate that they’re looking at possibly revoking Disney’s special status, and DeSantis suggests he could be on board with the idea. DeSantis claims it wouldn’t be “retaliatory” but that he was simply opposed to such special status.

April 19: DeSantis announces he is expanding Florida’s special legislative session to look at revoking the Reedy Creek Improvement District and five other special districts.

April 20: The state Senate votes to revoke the special districts on a mostly party-line vote, with one Republican voting against it and local government officials raising concerns about the financial burden that would be transferred to them. The district would be dissolved as of June 2023.

April 21: The state House passes the bill.

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