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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

DeSantis declares victory, but Disney World keeps many perks

For more than five decades, Disney has effectively been able to self-govern its 25,000-acre theme park complex in Florida.

By Brooks Barnes

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gained control late last week of the board that oversees development at Walt Disney World, a move that restricts the autonomy of Disney, the state’s largest private employer, over its theme-park complex and strips some perks enjoyed by the company for 56 years.

The changes are the result of a bill that the Florida Legislature approved at the urging of DeSantis, who fought with Disney last year over an education law that limits the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. The state house passed the bill Thursday, and the state Senate followed suit Friday. DeSantis claimed victory earlier in the week: “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

It was not a total victory for DeSantis, who originally wanted to eliminate more of Disney’s privileges by revoking Disney World’s designation as a special tax district. That status had effectively allowed Disney to self-govern the 25,000-acre resort since its founding. The district serves as a de facto county.

“I will not allow a woke corporation based in California to run our state,” DeSantis said last year. “Disney has gotten away with special deals from the state of Florida for way too long.”

His vitriol followed Disney’s decision to pause political donations in the state over the education legislation, which opponents call the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

The Legislature went along with DeSantis until it realized there was a problem. The abolishment of the district — set for June 1 — would require taxpayers in Orange and Osceola counties to pick up the tab for Disney World services such as fire protection, policing and road maintenance. Under the old setup, Disney paid for those costs.

The district also carried roughly $1 billion in debt. If the district had been abolished, that debt would have been transferred to the counties.

So the Legislature tried again, taking up a new Disney World measure in a special session that started Monday. This time, Disney would be allowed to keep the special tax district — which never went away — and almost all its perks, including the ability to issue tax-exempt bonds and approve development plans without scrutiny from certain local regulators. But Disney would no longer be able to appoint the five members of the tax district’s board. Florida’s governor would get to do that.

In terms of monetary impact, the changes make it possible for the board to impose taxes on Disney to help fund road improvements outside Disney World’s boundaries. It also eliminates some Disney World exemptions from state regulatory reviews, which could cause the cost of building projects at the resort to balloon.

DeSantis has relished campaigning and fundraising against what he calls “woke” corporations — chiefly Disney but also, over the past couple of years, the NCAA and Ben and Jerry’s — as well as certain math textbooks and the former top prosecutor in Tampa, whom DeSantis removed from office. Last year, he signed the Stop WOKE Act, a law that limits the teaching of aspects of racism and other history in schools and workplaces.

Before the special session, Disney hoped that it would retain the ability to appoint at least a couple of the board members.

“For more than 50 years, the Reedy Creek Improvement District has operated at the highest standards,” Jeff Vahle, Disney World’s president, said in a statement, noting that the resort has been able to grow into “one of the largest economic contributors” in Florida because of the district. “We are focused on the future and are ready to work within this new framework.”

The board makeup is important because members vote on Disney World development efforts, like building a new hotel or access road or an additional theme park. The worry is that a politicized board could delay or even block such plans. (Blocking development efforts and associated job growth is not something Florida’s Republicans are known for doing, however.)

The board does not have the power to dictate the content that Disney offers to its customers.

Disney World is already extensively developed, lessening the potential impact. The complex includes four theme parks; an outdoor shopping mall; a 220-acre basketball, soccer, volleyball, lacrosse, baseball and competitive cheer complex; and 18 Disney-owned hotels with 24,000 rooms. The complex attracts an estimated 50 million visitors annually.

The tax district’s comprehensive plan, which was recently updated and approved, already gives Disney the ability to build a fifth theme park, two additional water parks and thousands of hotel rooms on 850 acres. (The company has indicated no plans to do so.) The plan extends until 2032.

Along with putting the board in the hands of political appointees, the measure changed the tax district’s name to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. Disney will also be barred from building a nuclear power plant or an airport at the resort — things that were never on its to-do list anyway.

Florida has hundreds of similar special tax districts. One covers The Villages, a colossal senior-living community north of Orlando. Another covers Daytona International Speedway and the surrounding area.

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