Supporters like to say Gov. Ron DeSantis is “America’s Governor” because his popularity spreads far beyond Florida’s borders. They see him as smart, decisive and the one they want on that wall in the battle against wokeness.
Those folks probably love his fight with America’s theme park — a.k.a. the Magic Kingdom and Disney World. The issue is the company’s special status that allows it to essentially operate as its own government. So, yeah! Dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District and make the Mouse play by the same rules as everyone else.
That makes for a great talking point, but it’s not that simple.
This started because Disney CEO Bob Chapek opposed the Governor’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
In response, DeSantis asked lawmakers in the ongoing Special Session — originally designed to address some of Florida’s actual problems — to punish Disney. Interestingly, the dissolution won’t happen until next year — if it happens at all. There’ll be plenty of time to kiss and make up.
By then, though, DeSantis will have received headlines and plenty of airtime on Fox News. Supporters will keep sending campaign donations.
As a practical matter, though, canceling that improvement district could backfire on the Governor and his party. The Mouse has fangs, too.
Disney has long sent lots of money to Florida Republicans, but the company recently announced it was “pausing” those donations. However, what if the company were to redirect its vast resources to Democrats, especially in the Governor’s race?
And what if independent voters, who for now support DeSantis, get turned off by the never-ending culture crusade? Don’t we have more important things to address in Florida besides Disney’s “woke” culture?
What’s the big deal about Reedy Creek, anyway?
The Orlando Sentinel had a good explanation.
Reedy Creek, which covers about 25,000 acres in Orange and Osceola counties, was created by the Legislature in 1967. That’s about 27 square miles. Roy Disney, Walt Disney’s brother, negotiated the right to let the theme park operate independently, and lawmakers agreed.
The district allows Disney to control land use and environmental protection within its borders. Disney builds and maintains its roads and bridges. The company has its own fire and rescue services, although Orange County provides Sheriff’s Office protection.
It allows Disney to bypass the cumbersome government bureaucracy.
Before you ask, yes, Disney pays property taxes.
From 2015 through 2020, the company was levied more than $296 million in property taxes for its 14 properties, including the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios and others. Disney appealed that bill, claiming the Orange County Property Appraiser’s Office inflated the value of their land.
The company received a refund of about $8 million.
Meanwhile, Orlando became an international destination, and Disney’s out-of-state visitors filled the city’s hotels, restaurants, airport, and rental car counters. Florida and Disney became synonymous with each other.
Dissolving the district could have major financial implications for everyday taxpayers too.
The counties may have to pick up the cost of services Disney currently provides itself. That’s a lot of money. There’s also the matter of the district’s $1 billion or so in bonded indebtedness. Who picks that up?
It’s even questionable whether the Legislature can unilaterally deep-six Reedy Creek.
Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando told the Sentinel that only the district could decide to dissolve itself.
“The Legislature does not appear to have the authority to do this without the input and a vote from the Reedy Creek electors,” he said.
Yes, Disney received a lot of love from lawmakers over the years, maybe too much. But Disney is also Orlando’s area’s largest employer, providing jobs for an estimated 57,000 people. It is an economic supercharger for Florida.
You know what probably happens, right?
The district gets dissolved, and Republicans declare victory. Then early next year, the feuding sides compromise before chaos engulfs Central Florida, and everybody smiles.
That could be especially true for the Governor. He will have won again with an issue we didn’t know we cared about.