ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Florida’s gift to Walt Disney of a self-governing area of land south of Orlando was unprecedented at the time, experts say, necessitated by the fact that 1960′s Central Florida governments didn’t have the capability to host a theme park that welcomed millions of people each year.
More than 50 years later, the possible dissolution of the government that came from it, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, is equally unprecedented.
“What we haven’t seen is the dissolution of a district that is active, is of this size, and does not want to be dissolved,” Florida Association of Special Districts leader David Ramba said.
If the plan by Gov. Ron DeSantis goes through, Orange and Osceola counties would assume all assets and liabilities of Reedy Creek on June 1, 2023, much like they would if towns such as St. Cloud or Apopka dissolved.
For Disney, the main effect is more red tape. Disney would no longer be able to grant itself permission to renovate buildings or to build a new road. Instead, park officials would have to go to the county governments for every request, which Ramba indicated was more of an annoyance than a threat to the parks.
“It’s a lot easier for Walt Disney World to do that through Reedy Creek than it would be, say, Universal to do that through Orange County,” he said.
Reedy Creek employees and infrastructure would likely be absorbed by the counties, which would become responsible for things like sewer and road maintenance. In exchange, the counties would collect the tax revenue that Disney currently pays itself.
Local governments would also absorb all of the district’s liabilities, including the enormous amount of debt on its books.
Reedy Creek historically operates at a loss of approximately $5 to $10 million per year, per its financial reports. The current arrangement renders that meaningless since Disney is able to subsidize its own operations with theme park revenue.
According to lawmakers, though, there is as much as $1 billion in debt on the balance sheets that for which taxpayers would become responsible, possibly amounting to as much as thousands of dollars per household.
Taxpayers would also be on the hook for items the company currently pays for, such as road improvements. A similar situation played out in 2019 when commissioners voted for a $150 million renovation of Kirkman Road to accommodate Universal’s Epic Universe park, which many taxpayers called a waste.
“$150 million can go a lot farther,” one taxpayer said to leaders ahead of their vote. “Orange County is not so Epic.”
Ramba cast doubt as to whether Reedy Creek would actually be conveyed into the history books, even if legislators approved the measure this week. On one hand, they could simply reverse themselves during the next regular session in January, after election season ended.
Orange and Osceola county leaders could also set up special districts on the local level to maintain the status quo, which one Republican lawmaker alluded to as she voiced her support for DeSantis’ plan. Such a move would save Disney the headaches, but it’s unclear what would happen to the current district’s debt.
Disney could also prevail in court, Ramba said, because state law requires special districts to be dissolved the same way they were created. Reedy Creek, he said, was not created during a special session.
“This is too big of an issue to just say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna get rid of you,’” he said.
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