If Walt Disney were alive today, what would he think of the Florida Legislature threatening to dissolve Disney World’s government?
Disney historian Richard Foglesong hypothesized Uncle Walt fuming at lawmakers for even considering to strip Reedy Creek Improvement District of its powers after all — in Walt’s mind — Disney World had done for Florida.
“That would clearly be the attitude of Walt and the old guard as well. They thought they were owed something for coming to the state, that they had done Florida a favor — Central Florida in particular,” said Foglesong, a retired Rollins College political science professor who wrote about the formation of Disney World in his book “Married to the Mouse.”
Pre-pandemic, Walt Disney World Resort employed more than 75,000 people, making it the largest single-site employer in the country. Millions of tourists visit Disney World theme parks every year.
In particular, the timing of the state’s fight falling on Disney World’s 50th anniversary would make it “even more offensive” for Walt, Foglesong said.
The escalating saga began when Disney initially angered many employees and the LGBTQ+ community when the company was slow to publicly denounce Florida’s new “Don’t Say Gay” bill before it was signed into law. Under pressure, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said last month he was against it and planned to speak with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about the new law. But since then, Disney has infuriated the other side as Republican lawmakers are pushing to take away Disney’s special district, complaining that such a “woke” company doesn’t deserve these special privileges.
The Florida Legislature set up Reedy Creek in 1967 to entice Disney to the state. “They wouldn’t have come without it,” Foglesong said. The law gave Disney, which owns almost all the land within the district, powers typically reserved for governments like handling its own building codes, building roads and utilities, running a fire department and even issuing municipal bonds. Disney had the freedom and control to build and expand its Disney World empire, something Walt never fully had at Disneyland in California.
According to Foglesong, this isn’t the first time politicians scrutinized Reedy Creek.
In the 1980s, the Orange County government and Disney clashed over how to manage the area’s growing development. Orange County attorney Harry Stewart threatened to sue Disney and wanted to challenge Reedy Creek’s authority, Foglesong said. “He put the squeeze on Disney,” Foglesong said, although he added the County Commission was divided on the issue. Disney eventually offered to pay $13.4 million over five years, ending the fight, although county officials acknowledged it was just a drop in the bucket for Disney, according to Foglesong’s book.
Years later, Comcast Corp. — which owns Universal Orlando — made a surprise offer to buy The Walt Disney Co. for $54 billion in 2004. Comcast’s unsolicited offer to take over Disney left rumblings in the state government that made lawmakers review Reedy Creek for the first time in decades and take a closer look at the special district.
The Florida Legislature’s research arm issued a 2004 report looking at what actions the state could do if someone, other than Disney, controlled the land making up Reedy Creek.
“Comcast, at that time, just wasn’t well-known,” Foglesong said. “There was a concern that Comcast might not manage the property as responsibly as Disney had, and so the state was trying to scare off Comcast.”
Comcast’s deal ultimately fell through.
Foglesong admitted he’s been surprised to see the Republican attack on Disney unfolding this year. “I keep thinking that cooler minds will prevail, and this won’t happen,” he told Florida Politics on Wednesday as he described “the huge burden” that could fall on Orange and Osceola counties handling everything from building inspections to road improvements on the vast Disney property if Reedy Creek was dissolved.
He told The Associated Press: “I overestimated — or underestimated — Gov. DeSantis. I see it as a legitimate threat.”