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Ron DeSantis ends Disney World’s ‘corporate kingdom,’ tightens his control

Click to play video: 'Florida Gov. DeSantis signs bill impacting Disney World with state oversight of surrounding land'
Florida Gov. DeSantis signs bill impacting Disney World with state oversight of surrounding land
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill on Monday that asserts state oversight on the land surrounding Walt Disney World, dramatically changing a special tax district that for half a century allowed Walt Disney Co. to operate with a high degree of autonomy – Feb 27, 2023

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Monday that dissolved Walt Disney World’s self-governing district and placed municipal services under the control of a hand-picked, five-member governing board.

For over half a century, Disney World in Orlando has enjoyed a high degree of autonomy in deciding how to use the land in and around the famed amusement park. The creation of the self-governing Reedy Creek Improvement District was instrumental in Disney’s decision to build near Orlando in the 1960s. But that’s all about to change.

“Today the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” DeSantis said at a bill signing ceremony in Lake Buena Vista. “There’s a new sheriff in town, and accountability will be the order of the day.”

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In addition to being a self-governing district, Reedy Creek was also a special tax zone. DeSantis said that he expects taxes for the Big Mouse to rise following the passing of the bill.

Some observers believe the move is politically motivated, and that DeSantis is retaliating against Disney for publicly opposing Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, a bill that restricts classroom instruction on gender and sexual orientation. But DeSantis argues that Disney’s special district status is an unfair advantage.

“We have a situation here that was basically indefensible from a policy perspective,” DeSantis said. “How do you give one theme park its own government and then treat all the other theme parks differently? We believe that that was not good policy.”

In March, Disney’s then-chief executive officer, Bob Chapek, publicly voiced disappointment with the “Don’t Say Gay” law, facing pressure from the public and his own employees. DeSantis and state Republicans hit back, accusing the company of inappropriately injecting “woke” ideology into their movies and TV shows.

DeSantis moved quickly to penalize the company, the largest employer in central Florida, directing lawmakers in the GOP-dominated legislature to dissolve Disney’s self-governing district during a special legislative session.

With the signing of the bill on Monday, DeSantis was authorized to appoint five supervisors to oversee traditional municipal services in the region where Disney World operates, including fire protection, public utilities, waste collection and road maintenance. The quasi-government entity also has the authority to raise revenue to pay outstanding debt and cover the cost of services.

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DeSantis is gearing up for an expected presidential run, making this a high-profile legislative victory for the polarizing governor.

DeSantis said he would appoint Tampa attorney Martin Garcia as the chairman of the district’s new governing board, along with new board members Bridget Ziegler, a conservative school board member and wife of the Florida Republican party chairman Christian Ziegler; Brian Aungst Jr., an attorney and son of a former two-term Republican mayor of Clearwater; Mike Sasso, an attorney; and Ron Peri, head of The Gathering USA ministry.

Disney World employs close to 75,000 workers and drew 36.2 million visitors in 2021, according to the Themed Entertainment Association. The company has yet to make a public comment on the legislation.

— with files from Reuters and The Associated Press

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