Don’t take our Disney perks, employees urge DeSantis’ tourism board

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Employees at Gov. Ron DeSantis’ tourism oversight district urged leaders Wednesday not to strip them of their theme park passes and Disney discounts, calling the longtime program a treasured benefit that drew them to work there.

Those perks have emerged as the latest front in DeSantis’ battle with Disney. The governor’s hand-picked oversight board is calling the millions of dollars their predecessors spent on Disney perks for government employees working at and near Disney World “unethical” payments funneled to the entertainment giant.

But Lt. Pete Simon pleaded Wednesday for board members to rethink their decision to end the program, which was one of the deciding factors in his decision to work for the Reedy Creek Fire Department. That agency provides fire protection for Disney properties.

“The removal of this benefit takes away for some their entire reason for coming to work here,” Simon said at Wednesday’s board meeting.

Retirees continue to receive the passes, allowing them to take their grandchildren to Disney World, he said.

“The kicker for me was I’d be able to take my family to the parks. … This benefit is intangible and intergenerational,” he said.

Reedy Creek Improvement District, effectively controlled by Disney, also provided discounts at Disney stores and hotels to employees. The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which replaced Reedy Creek and is controlled by the governor, is calling the perks unfair and self-serving.

Aaron Clark, who also works for the district’s fire department, held back tears as he told the board members that some of his most cherished childhood memories are going to Disney World with his father, who held a lifetime pass as a Reedy Creek paramedic.

Now, he uses his pass to take his three children to the parks, he said.

“When entering this field, my goal was to become a firefighter at Reedy Creek,” Clark said. “One of the biggest draws was a chance to be that dad that was able to make those same memories that I was able to make with my dad.”

Board chairman Martin Garcia said the perks benefited one business over others and could possibly be illegal. At times, only about 30% of employees used the passes, he said.

“It wasn’t a pass that the employee could take to a non-Disney business and say, ‘I’ve got a $1,000 pass and I’d like to use it in a non-Disney restaurant or business, or a non-Disney hotel,’” Garcia said. “So, it was a policy that was created in favor of one taxpayer and not in favor of others.”

In lieu of the passes, the district is considering increasing employee wages by $1,425. It’s possible that amount could be raised if needed to fairly compensate employees, and the district is weighing what to do with retirees, Garcia said.

The district announced Monday it was referring the Disney perks to Florida’s inspector general for an investigation. In 2022, the district spent about $2.5 million on Disney perks, according to the announcement.

As the largest landowner in the district, Disney and its affiliates pay about 86% of the district’s taxes. Disney has not responded to a request for comment about the program.

Board members also got an update on the district’s growing legal tab. The district has sued Disney in state court and is a defendant in a lawsuit filed by Disney in federal court.

The district expects to spend $4.5 million on litigation in the 2024 fiscal year on top of $1.9 million that has already been incurred this year, according to a budget presentation.

In other business, the board voted to pay $110,000 to Donald J. Kochan, a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, to assist them in drafting a report for the Florida Legislature about how the district is governed.

His specialties include property, constitutional and environmental law.

The board’s meeting came as the district’s administrator Glen Gilzean faces scrutiny. Hired in May, Gilzean resigned Tuesday as chairman of the ethics commission after it was revealed he was ineligible to serve in both roles because of a state law barring public employees from the government watchdog panel.

The conflict went unnoticed until the investigative outlet Florida Bulldog flagged the issue last week.

“It was just an oversight,” Gilzean said after Wednesday’s meeting. “It is unfortunate … but I’m really happy and honored that I had the opportunity to serve.”