LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – As Gov. Ron DeSantis is poised to reinstate and modify the special district that provides some government services to the Walt Disney World resort, two separate Disney-controlled municipalities continue to operate using governmental powers the state granted them more than five decades ago.
The cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista were incorporated in 1967, on the same day then-Gov. Claude Kirk signed the Reedy Creek Improvement District into law. Lake Buena Vista was originally called the City of Reedy Creek.
Under the original charters, the three governmental entities shared many of the same powers including the authority to acquire property, collect ad valorem taxes, issue bonds, adopt its own building codes and establish utility systems such as water, telephone, and waste collection.
The three entities — Reedy Creek Improvement District Charter, Bay Lake Charter and Lake Buena Vista Charter — were also granted state permission to build airports and nuclear power plants, according to the 1967 laws.
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DeSantis signed a bill in April that would have dissolved the Reedy Creek Improvement District this summer.
That bill left the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista intact.
Those two municipalities, located within the boundaries of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, are home to about 55 people, according to the 2020 census.
Disney selects residents to live in mobile home communities on the company’s property near the Magic Kingdom in Bay Lake and close to the Disney Springs entertainment complex in Lake Buena Vista.
Those residents elect each other to serve as the cities’ mayors and councilmembers.
The Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista city councils meet monthly at the Reedy Creek Improvement District administration building to vote on government measures related to the Walt Disney World resort property.
The Florida Senate passed a bill Friday that would reinstate the Reedy Creek Improvement District under a new name with some modifications. The vote occurred less than four months before the special district was scheduled to be dissolved.
The bill now heads to the governor’s desk. DeSantis is expected to sign it.
The most significant change would remove the five-member Reedy Creek Improvement District Board of Supervisors, who are legally eligible to serve under the charter because Disney temporarily grants those members title to small parcels of company land.
The Disney-authorized board would be replaced by gubernatorial appointees under the pending legislation.
The measure would also strip the Reedy Creek Improvement District of its ability to build airports and nuclear power plants while maintaining its authorization to collect ad valorem taxes, issue bonds and operate utility systems.
“The corporate kingdom has come to an end,” a spokesperson for DeSantis stated last month when the bill was announced. “Under the proposed legislation, Disney will no longer control its own government, will live under the same laws as everyone else, will be responsible for their outstanding debts, and will pay their fair share of taxes.”
While the legislation would alter the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the bill’s Republican sponsor confirms it would not dismantle the other two Disney-controlled government entities.
“The bill ensures that the two municipalities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista continue to operate within their original charters,” a spokesperson for State Rep. Fred Hawkins told News 6. “The municipalities still have the same powers that were established in their original charters.”
Disney has come under fire from DeSantis and Republican state lawmakers after the company publicly criticized Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, which has been dubbed by detractors as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“There’s a new sheriff in town,” DeSantis said at a news conference Wednesday in response to questions about the Reedy Creek Improvement District legislation.
The actual sheriff who provides law enforcement services to the Disney resort area is Orange County Sheriff John Mina. For decades, the sheriff’s office has voluntarily entered into contracts with the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista to staff the Disney property with deputies.
The current three-year agreement was signed by Mina, Bay Lake Mayor Todd Watzel, and Lake Buena Vista Mayor Renee Raper.
The contract provides law enforcement services to the municipalities for $14.5 million this year, records show.
Since the pending legislation only addresses the Reedy Creek Improvement District and not the two cities, Mina has no immediate plans to modify the contract.
“We are not anticipating any changes to our role when it comes to protecting the residents and visitors in Orange County as a result of this legislation,” a sheriff’s office spokesperson told News 6.
The Disney cities’ budgets for law enforcement services surged around the time of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando that left 49 dead, as News 6 previously reported.
The U.S. Department of Justice has said the gunman’s original target was Disney Springs but believes he was deterred by the heavy presence of sheriff’s deputies funded by the two cities.
“(Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista) are able to continue contracts with the sheriff’s office,” a spokesperson for Hawkins said. “As under the previous charter, the (special district) does not have the ability to establish its own police department.”
According to budget documents, most of the $25.8 million in combined ad valorem tax revenue the two cities will collect from Disney and other resort property owners this year will be spent on public safety.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District, which expects to collect $183 million in taxes, permit fees and other revenue sources in 2023, currently funds most of the other governmental services on Disney property, records indicate.
It is unclear whether the leaders of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista will assume any of the government powers currently exercised by the Reedy Creek Improvement District should DeSantis appoint new members to the special district’s board.
A spokesperson for the Reedy Creek Improvement District did not respond to questions for comment.
Disney representatives did not address specific questions about the two cities.
“For more than 50 years, the Reedy Creek Improvement District has operated at the highest standards, and we appreciate all that the District has done to help our destination grow and become one of the largest economic contributors and employers in the state,” Walt Disney World President Jeff Vahle said in a statement. “We are focused on the future and are ready to work within this new framework, and we will continue to innovate, inspire and bring joy to the millions of guests who come to Florida to visit Walt Disney World each year.”
“The draft legislation ends Disney’s full self-governing status,” said a DeSantis spokesperson, who noted the law would bar the re-named Reedy Creek Improvement District from exercising eminent domain while prohibiting the modified special district from building airports, nuclear facilities, and toll roads.
The governor and his staff did not answer any questions about the continued existence of the cities of Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake, which remain controlled by personnel who live on Disney property with Disney’s permission.
“Florida is dissolving the Corporate Kingdom and beginning a new era of accountability and transparency,” a DeSantis spokesperson said. “These actions ensure a state-controlled district accountable to the people instead of a corporate-controlled kingdom.”
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