Q&A: DeSantis vs. Disney, what does it mean?

UCF professor Jim Clark discusses special session in Florida

Disney's Magic Kingdom and Gov. DeSantis. (Copyright 2023 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

ORLANDO, Fla.Florida lawmakers will consider getting rid of special districts enacted before 1968, which includes Walt Disney World’s Reedy Creek district, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Tuesday in The Villages.

But what does that mean, why is it being considered now and what impacts would this have on Disney, Reedy Creek, Orange and Osceola county governments and nearby residents?

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For background, the Reedy Creek Improvement District — created by state lawmakers in 1967 — allows Walt Disney World to act as its own government.

DeSantis, an ascendant GOP governor and potential 2024 presidential candidate, has battled with Disney over the company’s opposition to a new law barring instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.

UCF professor and News 6 political analyst Jim Clark answered several questions about the potential implications such a move would have.

Q: What is DeSantis doing with this special session?

A: It’s going to be fascinating to see if the Legislature’s anger at Disney is great enough to kill the Reedy Creek Improvement Distict.

Q: What’s Disney’s play now?

A: Disney is well prepared for a fight. They have more than three dozen lobbyists in Tallahassee who are all gonna be lobbying against this. Disney contributes millions of dollars every year to Florida Republicans. So they’re gonna fight this tooth and nail.

Q: Didn’t Disney say it would stop donating to Republicans (because of the new “Don’t Say Gay” law)?

A: They said they were pausing the donation, which is a lot different than stopping the donation, so I think that Disney was waiting until everything calmed down and then restart their donations.

Q: How much does Disney stand to lose?

A: It’s unclear what’s going to happen. It’s the great unknown. First of all, Disney doesn’t get any breaks here. It’s not like they don’t pay property taxes. They do pay tremendous property taxes in Orange and Osceola, but they pay for their own fire protection, they contract with the sheriff’s department and pay for protection from the sheriff’s department, they are responsible for their own infrastructure, everything. So they are paying property taxes, but they’re also paying millions and millions of dollars for upkeep to what would usually be done by the county, so it could be that the taxpayers of Orange and Osceola counties are gonna get a tax increase because of the Reedy Creek District going away. It could hurt the counties, definitely. And I don’t think (the counties) want responsibility for what’s 27 square miles of additional territory.

Q: Is there any pressure that Orange or Osceola counties could apply?

A: That’s a good question. The problem for Orange and Osceola, they are both Democratic counties and have very little impact on the governor or the Legislature. In fact, if you remember from the COVID wars, the governor and Jerry Demings, the Orange County mayor, were fighting one another, so it’s not likely that Orange and Osceola are gonna have a lot of impact on this decision.

Q: What’s the big picture here for DeSantis?

A: I think this is one of the culture wars. Ron DeSantis has been extremely successful in picking his fights -- this one with Disney, we saw it was math textbooks, things like that, where it increases his national profile and sets him up better for a presidential run.

Gov. Ron DeSantis calls for an expanded special legislative session to consider special districts created before 1968, including Reedy Creek Improvement District at Walt Disney World.

Q: Do you see DeSantis running for president?

A: Yes, definitely. I think he’s waiting to see what Donald Trump does and what’s going to be interesting is will Donald Trump run again and even if he does, will Ron DeSantis challenge him?

Q: So is this a play on the national stage by DeSantis?

A: I think that Reedy Creek is not that important to the state, to the county. Disney has been a good citizen. They pay lots of taxes and are part of the community. It’s just a way to hit back for challenging the governor.

Q: DeSantis has the leverage here, right? Disney can’t up and move.

A: Yeah, there’s nothing that Disney can do about this really, except lobby against it. It’s going to be interesting to see how Disney reacts to all this. I think they’re going to turn their three dozen lobbyists in Tallahassee loose to try to fight this effort. But again, this thing has momentum. Two weeks ago, no one heard of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, and now we’re having a special session to deal with it.

Republican lawmaker tweeted about repealing Reedy Creek act after company denounced ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

Q: Is there any legal challenge that can be launched?

A: Sure. I’m sure that Disney has its lawyers already prepared to go into court should this pass to challenge it. Remember, this was a law passed by the state, which gave them these rights, and Disney agreed to come here because of that. It will interesting to see if the courts get involved and how they rule.

Q: Is it fair for Disney to have a special district when other parks do not?

A: Would you rather have had Disney not come and go somewhere else or would you rather have Disney to come here in 1967? They were not going to start construction unless they had these concessions. That was the deal that Roy Disney, Walt’s brother, struck with the Legislature.

[WHAT IS REEDY CREEK? Read document below for more details]

About the Author:

Daniel started with WKMG-TV in 2000 and became the digital content manager in 2009. When he's not working on ClickOrlando.com, Daniel likes to head to the beach or find a sporting event nearby.