Disney will not fight a bill that gives Gov. Ron DeSantis broad powers over its Orlando theme parks, after the bill passed both houses of the Florida Legislature this week.
The bill establishes a new district to assume the powers held by the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which Disney has controlled since it was created in 1967. The new entity, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, will be run by a five-member board appointed by DeSantis and confirmed by the state Senate.
In a statement, Disney said it is “ready to work within this new framework,” indicating that it will not try to challenge the law in court. The Legislature moved to dissolve the Reedy Creek district last April, after Disney came out against the Parental Rights in Education law, known to its critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Some observers had suggested that Disney could file a First Amendment lawsuit or seek to challenge the takeover on various other grounds.
But Jeff Vahle, the president of Walt Disney World Resort, said in the statement released on Friday that the company will accommodate itself to the new reality.
“For more than 50 years, the Reedy Creek Improvement District has operated at the highest standards, and we appreciate all that the District has done to help our destination grow and become one of the largest economic contributors and employers in the state,” Vahle said. “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.”
The legislation was introduced on Monday. It passed the state House of Representatives on Thursday on a vote of 82-31, with 81 Republicans and one Democrat voting “yes.” All 31 “no” votes came from Democrats. The state Senate approved the bill on Friday on a party-line vote, with 26 Republicans in favor and nine Democrats opposed. It now goes to DeSantis for his signature.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District has broad authority over zoning, infrastructure, fire response and public utilities over a nearly 40-square-mile area in Osceola and Orange counties. The entity levies taxes on Disney and issues tax-exempt bonds for infrastructure projects. As by far the largest landowner within the district, Disney has had the power to elect the five members of the Board of Supervisors.
In establishing the new district, the Legislature left almost all of its powers intact. The legislation does remove the power to build a nuclear power plant and an airport, but those powers had never been used.
The practical effect of the change could end up being negligible and park employees and visitors are unlikely to notice any difference. But DeSantis and future governors will have broad power to make life difficult for Disney if they choose to exercise it.
“It’s like Disney is operating in a low-security prison, where they can still do what they want to do but there’s guards around them at all times,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who has been among the most vocal critics of the state takeover. “They can’t speak up against the governor ever.”
But fighting the law in court would have carried its own downsides. A lawsuit might have dragged on for years, with uncertainty over who was truly in charge of the district and leaving the district staff incapable of executing projects. It would also have embroiled the company further in a local culture war that it has been trying to extricate itself from. There was no guarantee of success, as many observers said that the Legislature has broad latitude to take away authority it had previously given.
In the past, Disney has been a major source of campaign contributions in Florida elections. The company suspended contributions to politicians of both parties last March, as the “Don’t Say Gay” controversy erupted. As of yet, those contributions have not restarted.