Florida governor gains control over Disney district board
By Dawn Chmielewski
(Reuters) -Florida lawmakers on Friday granted Governor Ron DeSantis effective control of the board that oversees development in and around Walt Disney Co's central Florida theme parks, escalating the Republican's battle with the company.
State Republicans targeted Disney after it publicly clashed with DeSantis last year over a law that restricts classroom instruction of gender and sexual orientation, known by its opponents as the "Don't Say Gay" measure.
Legislators in Florida gave final approval on Friday to a bill authorizing the governor to appoint five supervisors to run what is now known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a quasi-government entity with oversight of the 25,000 acres surrounding the Walt Disney World resort.
The state Senate will confirm board members, and the board will have no role in day-to-day operations of the theme parks.
DeSantis' spokesperson Bryan Griffin said the prior system, under which the Florida legislature in 1967 gave Disney sole control over the district, lacked accountability.
"Florida is ... beginning a new era of accountability and transparency," he said.
Disney World is the largest employer in central Florida with close to 75,000 employees and drew 36.2 million visitors in 2021, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.
The legislature voted last year to dissolve the special district, which for more than a half-century gave Disney the autonomy to govern itself, providing such government services as fire protection, water, sewer and waste removal services and infrastructure.
The action, seen as retaliation for Disney's then-Chief Executive Officer Bob Chapek speaking out against the state law limiting classroom discussion of LGBTQ issues, came with unintended consequences.
Tax experts and legislators warned that eliminating the district in June 2023 would leave county taxpayers liable for nearly $1.2 billion in bond debt.
The new bill preserves the Reedy Creek special district, though within two years it will be renamed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. It will have the authority to collect revenue, pay off debt and provide a range of government services. The district is prohibited from operating its own airport or building nuclear power plants.
The legislation also expressly bars anyone with ties to the theme parks over the past three years from serving on the board.
Walt Disney World President Jeff Vahle praised the Reedy Creek district, saying it had helped the theme park grow and contribute to the state's economy. "We are focused on the future and are ready to work within this new framework," he said in a statement.
The state Senate debated the bill for about an hour on Friday, with a handful of lawmakers voicing opposition.
"This all seems a retaliation by the governor for Disney voicing its support for the LGBTQ community," said Senator Linda Stewart, a Democrat who represents Orange County.
(Reporting by Dawn Chmielewski in Los Angeles; Editing by Mary Milliken, Chris Reese and Nick Zieminski)