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How Florida’s war with Disney could change the park experience

A change to Disney tax status could mean hiccups for new attractions and possibly higher prices for visitors, experts say

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
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When travelers think of Disney World, they probably think of rides, castles, a giant mouse and an even-more-humongous price tag. Questions of trash collection, fire-rescue services and building codes probably don’t come to mind.

Suddenly, those behind-the-scenes operations became front and center when the Florida legislature voted this week to undo the special district that Disney operates in. The Republican-led move comes amid a month-long squabble between the company and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) over the Parental Rights in Education bill, which restricts discussion about gender identity and sexual orientation in schools. Disney said the company’s goal was for the measure, which critics call the “don’t say gay" law, to be repealed or struck down in court.

The Republican-led Florida legislature passed a bill on April 21 that would cancel the special tax district of Walt Disney World in the state. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Established in 1967, the Reedy Creek Improvement District allows Disney to essentially prop up its own government, tax itself and use that money to provide services such as trash collection, flood control, power distribution, road maintenance, fire and emergency medical services, and water treatment. The district also oversees its own building code and issues permits, giving Disney more control over what it builds. It contracts with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement.

DeSantis signed the bill into law Friday. If the law is not tied up in legal challenges or repealed over the next year, the district will be dissolved on June 1, 2023. Disney declined to comment Friday.

Florida legislature passes bill repealing Disney special tax status

So what would change for visitors to Disney next summer? It’s not entirely clear, but local observers pointed to more cumbersome processes for Disney to build new attractions, potential hiccups in transitioning to public services and increased expenses for Disney — which could mean higher prices.

Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said he thinks that the company will try to shield customers from the negative impact of any changes in services.

“You don’t know that they’ll be able to,” he said. “You just don’t know when you’re talking about all these basic county-level services that have been provided by Reedy Creek but now might have to be provided by someone else.”

He said the entire ordeal will cost Disney, whether they choose to appeal the legislation in court or just opt to work out a transition. And operating under a system where they need to seek county approval for new projects could cost more time and money, too.

“Might that be passed along in increased ticket price? Maybe,” Jewett said. “Disney has really been aggressive in raising prices across the years. In my way of thinking, they don’t need much more of a nudge to raise them again.”

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Richard Foglesong, author of the book “Married to the Mouse,” said that if the district is dismantled, Disney will not have the level of control to provide its own public services and approve its own projects to develop and build faster than competitors. He said it’s not clear yet if doing away with Reedy Creek will hurt the bottom line.

“I think there’s subtle ways in which Disney would miss its controls, would prefer to have complete control aesthetically and otherwise,” he said. He said a huge advantage of the special district is that Disney can develop and build attractions faster than its competitors because it’s not subject to the same planning and zoning requirements.

“They will now have to go and ask permission.” Jewett said. “That in itself, I think, that’s going to cost more money, more time, more resources.”

But he pointed out that other theme parks are already subject to county approvals when they want to expand. Rivals SeaWorld Orlando and Universal Orlando Resort are nearby; neither have the kind of self-governing power that Disney wields.

"Universal is in the midst of massive expansion, and they seem to be able to get what they want from Orange County,” Jewett said.

Foglesong, a retired political science professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., said Disneyland also “does just fine” without the same self-governing structure in California.

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“It plays politics like other big corporations with lobbying and campaign contributions to get its way from the city of Anaheim,” he said.

He questioned how committed Disney might be to keeping the original Reedy Creek structure in Central Florida. He said someone will have to pay for infrastructure and debt if the district is abolished. He wondered: What if that someone ends up being the state of Florida?

“Maybe those promoting the legislation are going to end up paying the price, not just financially but maybe with voters,” he said. “This could end up looking like a bailout of Disney.”

A timeline of Disney's self-governing status

Even if the Reedy Creek district is abolished and Disney has to adjust to a new governing structure, Jewett said, he thinks the company will be fine.

"Is Disney going to get what they want? Probably most of the time, yes," he said. "They're hugely important to our economy."

Jewett added: “I see no reasons in the world Orange and Osceola County would not generally continue to work in a very positive way with Disney to try to make sure that they’re successful and get what they want.”

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