DeSantis Gains Control of Tax Board Overseeing Disney World
Last year, at the urging of Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Legislature revoked Walt Disney World’s designation as a special tax district — a privilege that Disney held for 55 years, effectively allowing the company to self-govern its 25,000-acre theme park complex.
“I will not allow a woke corporation based in California to run our state,” Mr. DeSantis said at the time. “Disney has gotten away with special deals from the State of Florida for way too long.” Disney, which is Florida’s largest private employer, had paused political donations in the state and defied Mr. DeSantis by condemning an education law that opponents call “Don’t Say Gay.” It prohibits discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity through the third grade and limits it for older students.
The problem: The abolishment of the district — set for June 1 — would require taxpayers in two counties to pick up the tab for Disney World services like fire protection, policing and road maintenance. Under the old setup, Disney paid for those costs. The district also carried roughly $1 billion in debt, which would be transferred to the counties.
So the Florida Legislature tried again, taking up a new Disney World measure in special session on Monday. This time, Disney would be allowed to keep the special tax district and almost all of its perks, including the ability to issue tax-exempt bonds and approve development plans without scrutiny from certain local regulators. But Disney would no longer be able to appoint the five members of the tax district’s board. Florida’s governor would get to do that.
The bill passed the Florida House on Thursday and the Florida Senate on Friday. Mr. DeSantis claimed victory earlier in the week. “There’s a new sheriff in town,” he said.
Along with putting the tax district’s board in the hands of political appointees, the measure changed the name to Central Florida Tourism Oversight District from Reedy Creek Improvement District. Disney will also be barred from building a nuclear power plant or an airport at the resort — things that were never on Disney’s to-do list anyway.
Even so, Disney is unlikely to be pleased. Ahead of the special session, Disney had been hoping that it would retain the ability to appoint at least a couple of the board members.
Disney World’s president, Jeff Vahle, said in a statement earlier in the week that “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.”
Florida has hundreds of similar special tax districts. One covers the Villages, a colossal senior-living community north of Orlando. Another covers Daytona International Speedway and the surrounding area.
The designation has been a critical tool for Disney in developing Disney World, which includes six theme parks; a sprawling outdoor shopping mall; a 220-acre basketball, soccer, volleyball, lacrosse, baseball and competitive cheer complex; and 18 Disney-owned hotels with 24,000 rooms. Disney World has a bus fleet that rivals that of St. Louis. The complex attracts an estimated 50 million visitors annually.