Florida GOP moves to let Ron DeSantis take over Disney World special tax district over LGBTQ support

The bill would allow DeSantis to choose the people in charge after Disney balked at the state's "Don't say gay" law

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published February 7, 2023 11:55AM (EST)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Republicans in Florida's House of Representatives introduced legislation Monday that would rename the special tax district set up for Walt Disney World and allow Gov. Ron DeSantis to choose the people in charge, The Tampa Bay Times reported

Under House Bill 9B, released Monday, Disney's Reedy Creek Improvement District will become the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and, unlike before when Walt Disney Co. picked the board of supervisors, its five members will be chosen by DeSantis and approved by the GOP-led state Senate. The bill is sponsored by Orlando Rep. Fred Hawkins.

The special-tax district near Orlando allowed Disney to self-govern the land that houses its Walt Disney World Resort for more than 50 years, The Wall Street Journal reported

DeSantis pushed for last year's law dissolving Reedy Creek on June 1, 2023, in retaliation for Disney's opposition to his "Don't Say Gay" law. But the legislation had a critical flaw: It did not say how the state would handle Disney's nearly $1 billion in bond debt, which would fall on the residents of Orange and Osceola counties if Disney's ability to tax itself was removed from law, according to the Tampa Bay Times. 

Reedy Creek, in a statement to bondholders last year, said the state couldn't dissolve it without paying off its debt, or it would violate a 1967 state law.

The state created Reedy Creek and essentially gave Disney control over issues such as land use, fire protection and sewer services that are typically handled by local governments. Landowners have elected the Board of Supervisors in the district.

The legislation would also strip some powers from the board, such as the ability to build an airport or a nuclear power plant.

The new bill, which is expected to pass this week during a special legislative session, would stipulate that Reedy Creek "continues in full force and effect under its new name" and different rules. 

The 189-page bill bars anyone who has worked for Disney or other theme park operators within the past three years, and their relatives, from serving on the board.

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Walt Disney World Resort's president, Jeff Vahle, said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times that the company was monitoring the legislation, "which is complex given the long history of the Reedy Creek Improvement District."

"Disney works under a number of different models and jurisdictions around the world, and regardless of the outcome, we remain committed to providing the highest quality experience for the millions of guests who visit each year," Vahle said.

DeSantis in the past has attacked Disney as a "woke" corporation and warned in a campaign fundraising email that "If Disney wants to pick a fight, they chose the wrong guy."

LGBTQ+ workers and employee allies at The Walt Disney Company staged a walkout in protest of Florida's "don't say gay" bill last year.

With Republicans having control of both chambers of the state legislature, the bill is likely to be considered quickly before being approved.

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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