The Florida Senate passed a bill Wednesday to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District as Republicans seek to punish Disney for opposing HB 1557, known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law—potentially eliminating the special district that Walt Disney World uses to operate as its own municipality, and setting up a court battle over the Florida theme parks’ future.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District was established by the state legislature in 1967 when Disney was building Walt Disney World and covers the resort’s property in central Florida, overseeing 25,000 acres of land in total.
The district essentially functions the same as a county government would, controlling construction permits, roads, building codes and fire department services rather than the local county governments.
Disney doesn’t directly control Reedy Creek, but the board of supervisors that oversees it is made up of people chosen by Disney, the Orlando Sentinel reports—elections are voted on by the district’s landowners, and Disney owns two-thirds of Reedy Creek’s land—and the Sentinel reported in 2015 Disney has also hand-picked the 44 residents who live on the property and have a hand in voting on how it’s run.
Florida Republican lawmakers are trying to get rid of the Reedy Creek Improvement District as part of a broader effort to punish Disney for opposing HB 1557, which restricts classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Lawmakers are moving forward with legislation that would dissolve any special districts that were created before 1968 and haven’t been re-ratified since, which a state Senate analysis notes would apply to Reedy Creek and five other districts (out of 1,843 total special districts in the state).
The Florida Senate passed the bill Wednesday in a 23-16 vote, and it’s expected to go to the House swiftly for a vote by Thursday.
What To Watch For
If the bill passes the House and is signed into law, Reedy Creek and other special districts would be dissolved as of June 1, 2023, though they could re-apply to be recognized as a special district again. Disney has not yet commented on the legislature’s efforts, but it’s likely the issue will go to court if it passes, as Florida law states special districts created by the legislature can only be dissolved with a majority vote of the district’s landowners.
What We Don’t Know
Exactly what impact dissolving Reedy Creek would have, as the rushed pace of Republicans’ legislation means there wasn’t time to thoroughly research the impact. Without Reedy Creek, Disney would have to go through more government red tape by seeking approval from the county for things like construction projects, though Democratic lawmakers noted Tuesday there’s still no clarity on things like how local counties would absorb government services or what would happen to people employed by Reedy Creek. While Republican lawmakers have argued the special district going away wouldn’t be a burden on local taxpayers, Senate analysis of the legislation notes the local counties will be responsible for taking on Reedy Creek’s debts, which total nearly $1 billion, according to credit analysis firm Fitch Ratings, which said it remains unclear what effect that will have.
Democratic lawmakers in Florida have slammed the effort to dissolve Reedy Creek, calling it “political theater” that distracts from the state’s redistricting maps, which are set to disenfranchise Black voters.
Disney is being punished for publicly opposing HB 1557, which bans any school instruction on “sexual orientation or gender identity” through the third grade, and any discussions about it in older grades if it’s “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” After initially drawing controversy for not opposing the bill strongly enough, Disney said after DeSantis signed the bill into law that said the law “should never” have been passed or enacted, and that its “goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts.” That statement set off conservatives in Florida and across the country, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) expanded the legislature’s special session to include Reedy Creek after weeks of lawmakers vowing to enact revenge on the company. In addition to the effort to dissolve Reedy Creek, Florida Republicans are also seeking to remove a carve-out in the state’s social media law that exempts companies with theme parks—which was designed to exempt Disney and its Disney Plus platform—though DeSantis has said the state will not go after any corporate tax breaks Disney’s received.
The battle over Reedy Creek is part of a broader anti-Disney effort by the GOP, which was set off by the company’s “Don’t Say Gay” opposition and increasing stances on divisive issues, such as vowing to get rid of its Splash Mountain ride, which has been criticized as racist, and labeling certain films on Disney Plus as insensitive. Right-wing media outlets have repeatedly gone after the company in recent weeks, and protesters have rallied at Walt Disney World and in California. Disney’s role in the partisan culture wars comes despite CEO Bob Chapek initially not wanting to weigh in on any political issues, the New York Times notes, before outrage from employees and customers forced the company to publicly oppose HB 1557.
DeSantis targets Disney World’s Reedy Creek district in special session (Orlando Sentinel)
Bills to sunset Disney governing district floated in Special Session (Florida Politics)