Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is not shying away from continued confrontation with Disney.
“I am not comfortable having one company with their own government and special privileges when that company has pledged itself to attacking the parents in my state,” he said this week.
During a Fox News town hall event Thursday night, DeSantis — widely believed to be a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 — made clear his motivations for signing a bill dissolving the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), a special, self-governing district formed on May 12, 1967.
Disney District Demystified
The Reedy Creek Improvement Act, approved by then-Gov. Claude Kirk, Jr., Florida’s first Republican governor since the Reconstruction era, established a multi-purpose district, allowing The Walt Disney Company to operate its vast campus independently by establishing its own city council, providing for its own public services, regulating its own building codes, and providing for its own financial needs through taxation of the property owner, which is Disney.
The district, home to just a handful of Disney employees who pay a small fee to rent space on the property, was initially established to streamline the late Walt Disney’s plans to build a futuristic and fully operable city on the swamplands that have since become the Walt Disney World Resort.
Listen to the latest episode of the Faithwire podcast 👇
It’s important to remember that, at the time the district was instituted, Florida was not the bustling tourism destination it is today, much of which is the result of Disney’s presence in the Sunshine State. So the idea of a history-making city founded by one of America’s most widely beloved figures, Walt Disney, who was a Christian, was incredibly attractive to politicians eager to show the world what a successful metropolitan city looked like at a time when cities around the country were roiled in political and racial unrest.
Those plans, though, never came to fruition and the space earmarked for the metropolitan dream became EPCOT, one of the four Disney theme parks in central Florida. Although the city never came into being, the RCID remained.
Reedy Creek — home to the Disney-operated cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, spread across 25,000 acres — has quietly co-existed with the rest of central Florida for some 55 years, but The Walt Disney Company shone a not-so-flattering light on itself in March when it went to bat against Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, a bill barring public-school educators from teaching children in pre-K through third-grade classrooms about gender identity and sexual orientation.
Many on the left and in the media have mischaracterized the law as the “Don’t Say Gay bill,” despite the fact the word “gay” never once appears in the five-page legislation and the law places no moratorium on the term’s use.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek initially tried to avoid taking a stance on the legislation, even stating it’s “counterproductive” for corporations to do so. But after facing intense scrutiny, he reversed course and has since vehemently opposed the law, set to go into effect July 1.
The Walt Disney Company has gone so far as to state its “goal” is to see the bill repealed.
All of this reached a fever pitch when Florida lawmakers passed legislation in mid-April to do away with the RCID. DeSantis signed the dissolution bill into law, setting into motion a process that will end with the disbanding of the special district by June 1, 2023.
DeSantis Doubles Down
DeSantis told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham that Disney ought to live under the same laws that govern everyone and everything else — including other theme parks, like Universal Orlando and SeaWorld — in Florida.
“It just simply ends with them being treated the same as every other company in Florida,” said the governor. “They’re going to follow laws. They’re not going to have their own government. They’re going to pay their debts, pay their taxes.”
The Republican didn’t mince words, either, making it clear the dissolution law is in response to The Walt Disney Company’s vociferous condemnation of the state’s Parental Rights in Education law.
“When that company has very high up people talking about injecting pansexualism into programming for young kids, it’s wrong,” he said, referring to Disney. “Walt Disney would not want that. And so get back to the mission. Do what you did great. That’s why people love the company, and you’ve lost your way.”
He added, “Maybe this will be the wake-up call that they need to get back on track.”
These latest condemnations follow a series of critiques DeSantis has leveled against Disney. In mid-March, for example, the conservative governor accused Disney of hypocrisy, claiming executives at the entertainment behemoth are “lining their pockets with their relationship from the Communist Party of China” while feigning moral superiority as they tout leftist ideals that, in DeSantis’ view, will “inject transgenderism into kindergarten.”
“They don’t say a word about the really brutal practices that you see over there at the hands of the CCP,” he said.
“First graders shouldn’t have ‘woke’ gender ideology imposed in their curriculums,” DeSantis continued. “When you have companies that have made a fortune off being family-friendly and catering to families and young kids, they should understand that parents of young kids do not want this injected into their kids’ kindergarten classroom. They do not want their first graders to go and be told that they can choose an opposite gender.”
Disney Defends District
Executives with The Walt Disney Company told investors this week they are confident Florida cannot disband its more-than-half-a-century-old RCID agreement with the iconic brand, citing a clause in the 1967 legislation that established the unique agreement.
The RCID filed a statement with the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, claiming Florida made pledges to bondholders in 1967 when the act to create the RCID was adopted. From the agreement (emphasis added):
The State of Florida pledges to the holders of any bonds issued under this Act that it will not limit or alter the rights of the District to own, acquire, construct, reconstruct, improve, maintain, operate or furnish the projects or to levy and collect the taxes, assessments, rentals, rates, fees, tolls, fares and other charges provided for herein and to fulfill the terms of any agreement made with the holders of such bonds or other obligations, that it will not in any way impair the rights or remedies of the holders, and that it will not modify in any way the exemption from taxation provided in the Act, until all such bonds together with interest thereon, and all costs and expenses in connection with any action or proceeding by or on behalf of such holders, are fully met and discharged.
“In light of the state of Florida’s pledge to the district’s bondholders, Reedy Creek expects to explore its options while continuing its present operations, including levying and collecting its ad valorem tax bonds and utility revenue bonds, complying with its bond covenants and operating and maintaining its properties,” stated The Walt Disney Company.
Jacob Schumer, a municipal attorney with the law firm Shepard, Smith, Kohlmyer & Hand in Maitland, Florida, told CBS MoneyWatch the state is contractually obligated not to get involved with the RCID until the bond — now totaling just under $1 billion — is paid off.
He noted the task of undoing the district operated by Florida’s largest private employer will be “tremendous.”
Should Disney fail in its effort to keep the RCID, something will have to happen to the district’s annual budget of $355 million and its debt of $977 million. Financial reports from the RCID shows the district historically operates at a loss of $5 to $10 million per year. That data point, however, doesn’t mean much, as The Walt Disney Company simply subsidizes its district’s operational costs with theme-park revenue.
It is not clear what would happen to the sizable debt the RCID has accrued if the district is dissolved. Opponents of the dissolution law have argued doing away with the special district would pass the bill on to Florida residents, resulting in higher taxes. One potential problem is current Florida law prohibits counties from raising sales taxes or impact fees to cover costs in just one area, such as the Disney district. All areas of the county, per state law, must be taxed equally. So whatever is done to curb the reported cost of dissolving the RCID will be felt by everyone.
Orange County tax collector Scott Randolph is predicting residents could see property taxes increase by as much as 20%, which could spell political trouble for DeSantis.
The governor, for his part, is confident Florida residents won’t feel any financial pain from the dissolution.
“It’s a fiction,” DeSantis told Ingraham of those claiming Disney’s tax burden will be passed to Floridians. “They are paying money to run their operations. … They will continue paying money to run their operations, and that will be true if the state is in charge of a district, if it’s dissolved to the locals — it doesn’t matter. That is going to continue to happen.”
At another point, the governor said: “Disney will pay its debts. Disney will for the first time actually live under the same laws as everybody else in Florida. The bonds will be paid by Disney. They will be paying taxes, probably more taxes.”
The governor made the point that Disney and the RCID are one and the same. The loss of its special status does not mean Disney will cease paying taxes for its infrastructure.
DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, took to Twitter Thursday to announce the governor would lay out a “plan” for the RCID over “the next few weeks,” promising no Floridians will be “on the hook” to bail Disney out of its debt.
“Partisan politicians (and their stenographers in the press) are making unsubstantiated statements that do not stand up to logic,” she wrote. “Let’s think about this for a minute: If it’s true that the repeal of the special district would hand Disney a tax break, and the local taxpayers would be on the hook for this bail-out to benefit Disney… then why would Disney oppose repealing their special district? Indeed, why wouldn’t Disney have lobbied to get rid of the special district long ago?”
This is a long and winding saga — and it’s still unfolding. There is no doubt Republican lawmakers are serious about holding Disney accountable for its decision to, as state Rep. Randy Fine (R) put it, “kick the hornet’s nest.”
If the new law is enacted, six of the state’s 1,844 special districts will be vanquished by next summer.
***As the number of voices facing big-tech censorship continues to grow, please sign up for Faithwire’s daily newsletter and download the CBN News app, developed by our parent company, to stay up-to-date with the latest news from a distinctly Christian perspective.***