Little-known Florida law gives Disney total autonomy

Claud Mccoid

Roy O. Disney and Mickey Mouse at the Oct. 25, 1971, dedication ceremony for Walt Disney World Resort on Main Street, U.S.A., in Magic Kingdom Park in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Disney photo)

The ongoing feud between Walt Disney World and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is intensifying. On Tuesday, the governor called for the state legislature to consider repealing a law allowing Disney to operate a private government over its properties in the state, a long-established rule known as the Reedy Creek Improvement Act. 

This conflict between DeSantis and Disney began after the company criticized the passage and signing of the Parents Rights in Education Law, which some refer to as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill.”

Any change to the laws governing the Disney theme parks could be a dramatic departure from the status quo. The Reedy Creek Improvement Act dates back to the time when Walt Disney was debating where to build a theme park follow-up to his success in California.

What is the Reedy Creek Improvement Act?

The Reedy Creek Improvement Act was signed into law in May 1967 by Gov. Claude Kirk in response to lobbying efforts by Walt Disney and his team.

Disney proposed building a recreation-oriented development on 25,000 acres of property in a remote area of Central Florida’s Orange and Osceola counties, which is comprised of 38.5 square miles of largely uninhabited pasture and swamp land, FOX Business reported. 

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The first phase of Walt Disney World under construction seen in November, 1969. (Photo by Alan Band/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Orange and Osceola counties didn’t have the services or resources to launch the project, and the state legislature worked with Disney to establish the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special taxing district that allows the company to act with the same authority and responsibility as a county government.

“It’s about Disney having a lot of control, not having to ask Orange County or Orlando permission to do a lot of things. Instead, they basically can decide what they want to do,” explained University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett.

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Cinderella Castle under construction at Magic Kingdom Park in 1971 at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Disney photo)

According to FOX Business, the district now covers Disney’s four Florida theme parks, two water parks and one sports complex, 175 lane-miles of roadway, 67 miles of waterway, and the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista. 

The area also has an environmental science laboratory, an electric power-generating and distribution facility, a natural gas distribution system, water and wastewater collection and treatment facilities, a solid waste and recyclables collection and transfer system and over 40,000 hotel rooms and hundreds of restaurants and retail stores.

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EPCOT under construction in 1982 at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Disney photo)

Under the law, the Reedy Creek Improvement District can levy taxes, write building codes, develop and maintain its own infrastructure and build whatever it wants, including an airport or nuclear power plant. 

FOX Business reported landowners within the area, primarily Disney World, are responsible for paying the cost of providing typical municipal services such as power, water, roads and fire protection, taking the burden off of Orange and Osceola County taxpayers.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District receives money from taxes and fees imposed within its boundaries. For 2022, the area has an operating budget over $169 million, according to FOX Business. 

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Lake Buena Vista Village (now Disney Springs) in 1975 at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Disney photo)

Services offered by the Reedy Creek Improvement District

The Reedy Creek Improvement District has built and maintained 134 miles of roads and 67 miles of waterways. 

According to FOX Business, the area has 2,000 venders, suppliers and contractors who provide public services to over 200,000 daily visitors. The district also has a fire department and emergency medical services. 

The area also manages 60,000 tons of waste, annually recycles 30 tons of aluminum, paper, steel cans, cardboard and plastic containers and tests 22,800 water samples from 1,500 locations to meet quality standards established by the federal and state governments.

The district also has authority to handle drainage from Florida’s notorious rain storms, and then handle mosquitos and other pests that come along with that.

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Walt Disney characters, circa 1972, seen in one of many ‘utilidors’ which are hidden under and throughout the theme parks, preserving the magic for guests. (Photo by Jonathan Blair/Corbis via Getty Images)

Florida governor pushes to repeal the Ready Creek Improvement Act

On Tuesday, as Florida’s lawmakers returned to the Capitol for a special legislative session on congressional redistricting, DeSantis issued a proclamation that allows the Republican-controlled statehouse to take up bills eliminating Disney’s self-governing district.

“I am announcing today that we are expanding the call of what they are going to be considering this week. And so, yes they will be considering the congressional map, but they also will be considering termination of all special districts that were enacted in Florida prior to 1968, and that includes the Reedy Creek Improvement District,” DeSantis said at a news conference, referencing the company’s governing district without mentioning Disney by name.

Earlier this month, DeSantis threatened to have the Reedy Creek Improvement District dissolved. 

After Disney released a statement on March 28 condemning the bill, some lawmakers suggested repealing the improvement act. State House Rep. Spencer Roach, a Fort Meyers-area Republican, tweeted a post about a repeal of the act, to which DeSantis responded to the post with a “thumbs up.”

According to FOX 35 Orlando, DeSantis previously said Disney’s executives were trying to inject their “California values” into the more moderate Sunshine State. 

The law prohibits Florida educators from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade with a provision that enables parents to sue if they allege schools or instructors have been in violation.

Disney World, one of Florida’s biggest employers, announced it would suspend political donations in the state over the controversial bill, which is scheduled to go into effect on July 1. 

The bill was signed into law on March 28 and Disney previously said it would support efforts by organizations to have the law repealed by the legislature or stuck down in the courts, FOX Business reported. The statement came after criticism from Disney employees and fans over the entertainment company and CEO Bob Chapek’s initial silence about the bill.

What would a repeal of the Reedy Creek Act mean for Disney World?

A repeal of the Reedy Creek Act would require Disney to submit to building inspections and planning and zoning controls by Osceola and Orange counties. According to FOX Business and the Orlando Sentinel, Disney World would have to pay fees and taxes it currently doesn’t pay. This includes fees to offset the cost of public services or taxes other property owners pay to fund law enforcement. 

According to FOX Business, a potential repeal of the act could impact the entertainment company’s plans to move roughly 2,000 employees in its Parks, Experiences and Products division from California to a new campus being constructed in Florida’s Lake Nona. 

FOX 35 Orlando, FOX Business, and the Associated Press contributed to this story. This story was reported from Washington, D.C.

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