Orange County lawmakers advance Disney oversight repeal, but bill’s future remains uncertain

Linda Stewart won local support for the bill, but there's still no House sponsor.

The Orange County Legislative Delegation advanced a local bill that would reverse the dismantling of Disney’s self-governing ability. But amid procedural arguments about the bill, it’s unclear what path forward any legislation may have.

Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat, sponsored the local bill, saying the Central Florida Tourism Oversight Board put in place has proved disastrous. That board, made up entirely of Gov. Ron DeSantis appointees, replaced the Reedy Creek Improvement District, whose membership was appointed by Disney as the prime property owner in a taxing district.

“It’s not working,” she said. “And we have had 10 months.”

The Legislature passed a bill in Special Session last year after dissolving the Disney-controlled district in place since Walt Disney World’s founding that put a board appointed by the Governor in charge of government matters.

But that has been met with high staff turnover and perpetual controversy since the state takeover. As of November, 40 of the district’s 370 employees quit, district administrator Glen Gilzean had to resign his position on the state Commission on Ethics due to a conflict of interest, and complaints have arisen about the handling of all government revenues.

The state also remains in litigation with Disney, who maintains the entire state takeover was a violation of free speech rights as DeSantis retaliated against the company for opposing Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” law, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law by critics.

Stewart said it’s no surprise the district has failed considering the short amount of time that went into crafting a new government to replace one in existence for decades.

“You never rush legislation because this is what you run into,” she said. “We need to go back to square one and see what we can do.”

But Rep. Carolina Amesty, a Windermere Republican who represents much of the Disney property now, said it’s the Stewart bill that was put together haphazardly. She criticized that the bill to date has no House sponsor and hasn’t gone through bill drafting, despite the deadline already passing for bills for consideration in the 2024 Session.

She also considered it an affront that Stewart never reached out to her about a bill that will significantly impact her district.

“Disney is very important to our district,” the House District 45 Representative said. “If there is any policy to do with the district, I’d like to be contacted beforehand.”

Amesty notably worked with former Rep. Fred Hawkins, the St. Cloud Republican who sponsored the takeover legislation last year, the last time the Legislature discussed governance for the district. Hawkins has since resigned for a job as South Florida State College President, and his seat remains vacant until a Special Election is held this month.

While Amesty said the bill was only put in front of her at the delegation meeting Friday, she notably did not attend a similar meeting in November, which contributed to a lack of quorum to approve the bill.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat chairing the Orange County delegation, acknowledged procedural irregularities, including a state Senator serving as the prime sponsor of a local bill. But she said nothing about Stewart’s legislation violated rules for the delegation or Legislature.

Amesty also serves on the Osceola County Legislative Delegation, which has not heard the bill. That’s a problem as the district covers portions of that county, she said.

But Sen. Vic Torres, an Orlando Democrat who chairs the Osceola County Delegation, said he attempted to call a meeting. Enough Republicans declined to attend such a meeting, preventing a quorum there as well, he said.

Regardless of the posture of the bill with the local lawmakers, there remain questions where the bill can go from here. Stewart said with the delegation approving the matter, it can go through drafting with House staff and be considered as a local bill. That doesn’t resolve a lack of a House sponsor, and Stewart hasn’t spoken with any committee Chairs in the House about getting the legislation on an agenda.

The bill passed on a voice vote after three Republicans at the delegation meeting spoke against it. Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who also represents the Disney area, said he didn’t believe the bill was in a posture to pass in the Senate either. That’s largely because Stewart doesn’t sit on the committee handling local bills there.

Rep. Doug Bankson, an Apopka Republican, said he considered the bill a step backward. If lawmakers believe the new district should be improved, Bankson said he’s open to that discussion, but he did not want to revert to Disney having full control over its own local government, powers not enjoyed by competing theme parks.

Stewart said she would be happy with changes to the district makeup, asserting that gubernatorial appointees don’t understand the community needs the way a locally elected board would. She said her local bill would be an avenue toward such reform.

“It starts the conversation,” she said.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].


  • Phil Morton

    January 5, 2024 at 12:22 pm

    Amnesty, Baxley and Bankson will be gone next year so it seems they’re trying to do as much damage as possible before their exit.

  • Dont Say FLA

    January 5, 2024 at 1:29 pm

    Is Rhonda tired of “winning” yet?

    LOL @ another embarrassing loss for Rhonda

    I wonder whether the Never Back Down Telemarketing Scam (aka PAC) will pay Rhonda’s fees and fines as he continues losing to Disney?

  • jean solomon

    January 8, 2024 at 11:52 am

    Desantis stole DISNEYs self governing the same time , he approved giving UNIVERSAL the same self-governing status that he denied DISNEY…I wonder how much that cost UNIVERSAL?? AND is RHONDA going to remove the woman involved in the sexual fun and games, who he appointed to the REEDY CREEK BOARD… IMO; the appointed board needs to audited , now, those large salaries they are paying them selves are interesting,,,this is tax payer money.

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