Florida lawmakers on Friday gave final approval to a proposal to give Gov. Ron DeSantis more control over the future of Disney’s Orlando-area theme parks, the latest escalation in the Republican leader’s feud with the entertainment giant.
The GOP-led state Senate voted 26-9 Friday on a bill to let the state take over the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the government body that has given Disney unique powers in Central Florida for more than half a century. Under the bill, the district’s existing board will be replaced by a five-member board hand-picked by DeSantis.
The measure passed the Republican-controlled House on an 82-31 vote Thursday. It now heads to the desk of DeSantis, who is expected to sign it.
The latest move against Disney comes a year after the company spoke out against a bill to restrict certain classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity. The legislation drew a forceful rebuke from Democrats and LGBTQ advocates, who feared the bill would marginalize LGBTQ students and teachers and make them feel less safe in schools. In March of last year, as outrage against the legislation spread nationwide, Disney released a statement vowing to help get the law repealed or struck down by the courts and saying the company was “dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Florida and across the country.”
After signing the bill into law, DeSantis then set his sights on punishing Disney. He called on lawmakers to strip the company of its special governing powers, which they did in a special session last year, voting to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District at the end of May 2023.
Lawmakers, though, changed course this week and instead voted on a new future for Reedy Creek, one that puts DeSantis appointees in charge of the district’s long-standing powers to tax, build and borrow money for projects around Disney’s vast footprint in Orange and Osceola counties. It also renames Reedy Creek as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.
Proponents say the changes ensure that there will not be a disruption to the district’s existing debt or contracts. The final page of the 189-page bill states: “The Reedy Creek Improvement District is not dissolved as of June 1, 2023, but continues in full force and effect under its new name.”
The changes seemed to satisfy some concerns that the district’s outstanding debt, reported at about $1 billion, would fall on Florida taxpayers. Fitch Ratings, which put Reedy Creek Improvement District’s debt on watch for a negative bond rating, told CNN in a statement that the proposed legislation “appears to address key uncertainties.”
In a statement to CNN earlier this week, Jeff Vahle, the president of Walt Disney World Resort, said the company is “monitoring the progression of the draft 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.