THE VILLAGES, Fla. —
In a surprise announcement on Tuesday morning in The Villages, Gov. Ron DeSantis said there is an additional focus of this week’s special session.
He said lawmakers will consider stripping Disney of its self-government power in the state. The governor called the special session originally to work specifically on congressional redistricting.
“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.
DeSantis then issued a proclamation calling for the special session to be expanded to include consideration of terminating all special districts enacted in Florida prior to 1968.
Minutes later, Republican State Rep. Randy Fine from Brevard County filed the legislation and tweeted: “Disney is a guest in Florida. Today, we remind them.”
On Tuesday, Republican House Speaker Chris Sprowls spoke out about Disney’s special powers from Tallahassee.
“I don’t think there’s another special taxing district in the state that I’m aware of that has the ability to construct their own nuclear power plant. I think that’s something that unique to Disney,” he said.
But Democratic State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith from Orlando said Republicans calling out districts for their special status is disingenuous.
“They are applying this bill only to affect Reedy Creek and not The Villages. This is political retribution. They are punishing Disney for speaking out against them on ‘Don’t Say Gay,'” he said.
What is Reedy Creek Improvement District?
Years before Cinderella Castle opened, Walt Disney himself worked his magic on state lawmakers that Disney World should have governing authority over the land. Months after his death in December 1966, the governor and legislature in 1967 granted the company, under the direction of Walt’s brother Roy, the establishment of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, to govern property that would eventually become Disney World.
Under Florida law, landowners of Reedy Creek, like Disney, can regulate their own water, power and emergency services. DeSantis said their power doesn’t end there.
“I was shocked to see some of the stuff that’s in there. They can do their own nuclear power plant. Is there any other private company in the state that can just build a nuclear power plant on their own?” he said. “They’re able to do certain things that nobody else is able to do. So I think they’re right to be looking at this and reevaluating and having an even playing field for everybody, I think is much better than basically to allow one company to be a law onto itself.”
DeSantis vs. Disney
Disney’s independence has been under the microscope in the wake of the company denouncing Florida’s new “Parental Rights in Education” law, or the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
In a tweet, state Rep. Spencer Roach, who represents the North Fort Myers area, wrote that lawmakers have already met twice to talk about repealing the Reedy Creek Improvement Act.
“If Disney wants to embrace ‘woke’ ideology, it seems fitting that they should be regulated by Orange County,” Roach said.
Could Disney be dethroned?
“I think that there is a pretty high probability that Disney will lose its power of self-government,” said Aubrey Jewett.
UCF Political Science Professor Aubrey Jewett said usually when the Governor brings up a topic at a special session, it is only after consultation with leadership that they have the votes to push through their agenda. He said from a politics standpoint, the DeSantis’ move makes sense.
“He knows that his supporters look at Disney as a ‘woke’ corporation and they love it when Governor DeSantis goes against a corporation,” Jewett said.
However, from a public policy standpoint, he has concerns.
“This is not a good way to make public policy because we don’t know all the ramifications,” said Jewett.
It’s not only Disney’s special district on the line, but over 130 others including the Daytona Beach Racing and Recreational Facilities District, Canaveral Port District and the South Florida Water Management District. Yet, majority of the others are already governed by cities and counties.
Meanwhile, Reedy Creek’s budget shows the district is projected to spend nearly $10 million more than it makes. So without Disney, who is paying?
“We don’t know how it will affect Disney, a huge employer, we don’t know how it will affect the Central Florida economy,” said Jewett.
Jewett said there could be good reason to reassess Disney’s power, but stresses the analysis should be methodical.
“Universal doesn’t have that special arrangement, SeaWorld doesn’t have that special arrangement,” he said. “Will Disney adapt if this happens? Yeah, they’ll have to. But again, it just seem ill advised to rush into it, even if it might be a good idea.”
WESH 2 News reached out Reedy Creek Improvement District and Disney, but they have not replied.