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The Not-So-Magic Kingdom

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On Dec. 4, 2023, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District released an 80-page report detailing the relationship between Walt Disney World Resort and the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID). The audit was created for Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature to satisfy the mandate of Chapter 2023-5, Florida Laws, Section 4(8)(d). The document delved into the undue relationship between the theme park and the jurisdiction within Orange and Osceola counties. It revealed RCID Disney discounts, tickets, passes and special merchandise while the Mouse received a “responsive” governmental structure.

“These arrangements gave Disney something unique in all of Florida: the power to govern itself, free from outside interference, through a pocket government that Disney controlled,” the report stated. “The RCID was a sui generis special district… the super-special nature of Disney’s special district was a privilege that only Disney enjoyed. Being exempt from the requirements that bound other large developments clearly gave Disney a leg up on the competition.”

The unique ability possessed by Disney put it in an advantageous position over its neighbors and competitors. That was ended when Governor DeSantis signed HB 9-B on Feb. 27, 2023. According to flgov.com, this law that abolished the RCID and transformed it into the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District did so by ending a variety of practices: the park’s self-governing status, exemption from the Florida Building Code and Florida Fire Prevention Code, exemption from state regulatory reviews and approvals, and its secrecy. The bill also guarantees that Disney will pay its “fair share of taxes” and prevents “leftist local governments” from using this to raise local taxes. Disney will be required to pay its municipal debts as opposed to the taxpayers doing so. As a result of the law, the park will no longer receive preferential treatment. The report submitted to the governor was required to be sent within a year of the effective date of the act.

According to the lengthy document, the perks received by the RCID staff were “cast member” benefits, which included annual passes totaling millions of dollars in worth for the recipient and three family members. They also received single-use transferable tickets for free that could be used during the holiday season. These passes were paid for by the RCID, although some RCID staff thanked Disney for providing the tickets. Discounts were offered on merchandise, food and beverages, and cruises (40 percent) as well. Some of the merchandise and shopping options offered to district members were not available to the public as they were exclusive only to cast members and the RCID.

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These were the district’s bonuses, but how did Disney use the RCID to its advantage? When the district built a trio of parking garages near Disney Springs that cost roughly $700 million, these garages were of sole benefit to Disney and its tenants as they were on the park’s land. However, these projects were financed by the district’s public resources, not Disney. Other taxpayers across the district were also required to foot the bill for $100 million for the parking garages.

Another controversial decision of the RCID was to remove a crosswalk that allowed access from the Shades of Green Resort at Walt Disney World to the monorail. There were several options for widening the road and the RCID chose the one preferred by the Disney Corporation. The removal of the crosswalk meant that guests of Shades of Green no longer have easy access to the Disney parks. The Shades of Green Resort at Walt Disney World is a resort for current and retired military personnel and their families run by the Department of Defence (DOD). The resort was originally a Disney Golf Resort before being leased by the DOD in 1994 and bought outright from Disney in 1996 for $43 million.

There were various other acts of impropriety by the district as they spent hundreds of thousands on gifts, extravagant celebrations and parties hosted by Disney, and other events. Structural evidence of their subservience extended to the fact that the district did not possess an enforcement mechanism of any kind to oversee violations in building code or fire safety. Disney also directly influenced the RCID’s permitting decisions. Non-Disney taxpayers were even aware of the fact that their permitting decisions would be delayed if they chose vendors that were not approved by Disney when it came to construction and development projects.

How did Disney manage to create such an advantageous position for itself?

Included in the audit was a report by Professor Donald Kochan, who is an expert in property law and land use planning. His analysis of the “Old Act,” the law that preceded HB 9-B, found that Disney obtained its special district through a “bait without even a switch.” The park lobbied the Florida Legislature under the pretense that this “powerful, unilateral, and unaccountable” district would build a city on its Central Florida land. According to the report, the record showed that “Disney disdained voters” and did not want any of its decisions to be “subject to public accountability.” Once the RCID was secured, Disney abandoned the concept of building the city. Consultants on the Disney World and special districts project even advised the park to “limit the scope of democracy” to free the resort “from the impediments to change, such as… elected political officials.”

Following the loosing of the RCID’s shackles to the Mouse, Disney filed an amended complaint in September against the Florida governor. Disney claimed that DeSantis’ actions were in retaliation to Disney’s CEO’s opposition to the Parental Rights in Education law. The corporation dropped most of its claims against the governor in September, but the allegations of First Amendment violations by his office remain. The two parties then made their way to federal court on Tuesday. The Sun will continue to keep readers updated as the protracted legal battle between Disney and DeSantis shakes out.

Austyn Szempruch
Austyn Szempruch
Austyn Szempruch is a Graduate with Distinction, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. He's written numerous articles reporting on Florida Gators football, basketball, and soccer teams; the sports of rugby, basketball, professional baseball, hockey, and the NFL Draft. Prior to Hernando Sun he was a contributor to ESPN, Gainesville, FL and Gator Country Multimedia, Inc. in Gainesville, FL, and Stadium Gale.
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