DeSantis: Florida lawmakers to consider ending Disney’s self-governing power during special session

THE VILLAGES, Fla. — Florida legislators will consider whether to end special districts put into place before 1968, including the one that gives Walt Disney World Resort essentially its own government, during their special session that starts Tuesday.

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Gov. Ron DeSantis made the announcement that special districts would be added to legislators’ agenda in a news conference on Tuesday in The Villages.

The purpose of the special session, which started at noon on Tuesday and continues through Friday, is to redraw the state’s congressional maps after DeSantis vetoed the maps passed by the legislature during its regular session and called for a special legislative session to draw them again.

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The last-minute addition of the option to terminate the special districts comes after weeks of tension between DeSantis and the Walt Disney Company following the passage of the controversial Parental Rights in Education Law, known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District gives Disney the right to govern itself like a city. If it’s repealed, the theme park’s land would fall under Orange and Osceola counties, since Disney stretches into both counties.

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Since Disney moved to Florida in the ’60s, the park has been able to operate its own government, providing its own services for things like fire, roads, and water.

In 1965, Walt Disney, his brother Roy, and Florida Gov. Hayden Burns appeared together in Orlando to announce Disney was moving east, building in Central Florida.

As Cinderella Castle was being built, the Florida Legislature gave Disney the main thing Walt wanted: self-governance of the property.

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Now, that could be coming to an end. If the governor has his way, Disney could stop operating as its own government by next summer.

“They also will be considering termination of all special districts that were enacted before 1968 and that includes the Reedy Creek improvement district,” DeSantis said.

Through Reedy Creek, Disney has been able to operate as its own government, taxing itself and providing its own services.

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The elimination of the district means all of that responsibility would fall on Orange and Osceola counties.

“If someone would have said in January when they were meeting for legislative session that the governor of the state of Florida would be declaring war on Walt Disney World I don’t think anyone would had that on their bingo card,” Former State Rep. Republican Bobby Olszewski said.

Olszewski, who used to represent the area around Disney, said Orange and Osceola would be forced to absorb many of the services currently provided by Reedy Creek, something that would mean hiring more staff.

READ: Disney CEO says he opposes Florida’s controversial Parental Rights in Education bill

But the real loser? Disney, which for the first time since coming to Florida, would lose its ability to build what it needs when it needs it.

Channel 9 spoke to several Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee on Tuesday, each saying the bill puts them in a difficult position of having to either oppose the governor or oppose the largest employer in the state.

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Just last year, Disney gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Florida Republicans. Disney gave the state GOP about $300,000 then cut a check to DeSantis’ PAC for another $50,000.

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READ: State lawmakers target Disney as tensions mount

Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson, WFTV.com

Sarah Wilson joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2018 as a digital producer after working as an award-winning newspaper reporter for nearly a decade in various communities across Central Florida.