By Dawn Chmielewski
(Reuters) – Florida lawmakers granted Governor Ron DeSantis effective control of the board that oversees development in and around Walt Disney Co’s central Florida theme parks, escalating the Republican’s battle with the emblematic company.
The bill, filed Monday and passed by both houses of the legislature on Friday, gives the governor the authority to appoint five supervisors to run what is now known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a quasi-government entity with oversight of the 25,000 acres surrounding the Walt Disney World resort.
The board members will be confirmed by the Senate, and will have no involvement in the day-to-day operations of the theme parks.
“Reedy Creek gifted extraordinary special privileges to a single corporation,” DeSantis’ spokesman Bryan Griffin wrote on Twitter. “Until Gov. Ron DeSantis acted, Disney maintained sole control. This amounted to an unaccountable Corporate Kingdom. This is over, and we are beginning a new era of accountability and transparency.”
Disney World is the largest employer in central Florida with close to 75,000 employees, drawing 36.2 million visitors in 2021, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.
The legislature voted last year to dissolve the special district, which for more than a half-century had provided Disney with the autonomy to govern itself, providing such government services as fire protection, water, sewer and waste removal services and infrastructure.
The action, seen as retaliation for Disney’s then-Chief Executive Officer Bob Chapek speaking out against a state law limiting classroom discussion of LGBTQ issues, came with unintended consequences.
Tax experts and legislators warned that eliminating the district in June 2023 would leave county taxpayers liable for nearly $1.2 billion in bond debt.
The new bill preserves the Reedy Creek special district, though within two years it will be renamed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. It will have the authority to collect revenue, pay off debt and provide a range of government services. The district is prohibited from operating its own airport or building nuclear power plants.
The legislation also expressly prevents anyone with ties to the theme parks over the past three years from serving on the board.
“Disney works under a number of different models and jurisdictions around the world,” Walt Disney World President Jeff Vahle said in a statement. “And regardless of the outcome, we remain committed to providing the highest quality experience for the millions of guests who visit each year.”
Florida Senator Geraldine F. “Geri” Thompson, whose district includes Orlando, said she worries the governor’s appointees will reflect DeSantis’ views on diversity and inclusion.
Last year, DeSantis championed a law known was the “Stop W.O.K.E.” act, that restricted conversations about race in schools and workplace training. A federal judge blocked it from taking effect in the state’s public universities.
“I’m concerned that with his emphasis on eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion, if he’s going to try to get into the programmatic side of Disney,” Thompson told Reuters.
(Reporting by Dawn Chmielewski in Los Angeles; Editing by Mary Milliken and Chris Reese)