TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Gov. Ron DeSantis floated the idea Thursday of changing Florida law to revoke the Walt Disney Company’s right of self-rule in the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the Florida-based seat of the Magic Kingdom.
In the days since DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education bill into law, which opponents call the “Don’t Say Gay” law, opposition to the legislation by Disney has provoked talk of using state legislation to take away the company’s ability to self-govern its lands. Disney first got the right of legal self-control in 1967, with passage of the Reedy Creek Improvement Act.
According to historical documents from the Reedy Creek Improvement District, then-Florida Gov. Claude Kirk signed the RCID Act into law in May 1967, creating two municipalities: Bay Lake and Reedy Creek, which was later renamed Lake Buena Vista. The location, nestled between Orange and Osceola counties, would later become the site where Walt Disney World was built.
The RCID Charter created a 25,000-acre of land as a special taxing district. At the time, it was considered remote and uninhabitable, but now is the site of one of the busiest theme parks in the United States.
To make Disney’s plan happen, the area had to get special privileges from the state of Florida to essentially run itself.
“In 1967, the Florida State legislature, working with Walt Disney World Company, created a special taxing district – called the Reedy Creek Improvement District – that would act with the same authority and responsibility as a county government,” RCID says on its website.
Enter an era of the Magic Kingdom living a life of self-determination and self-rule.
Now, following the company’s public opposition to HB 1557, DeSantis and other state lawmakers have said they’re considering revoking that charter through a repeal of the RCIA, potentially ending Disney’s right to rule in Central Florida.
State Representative Spencer Roach, R-Fort Myers, tweeted on March 30 that he met with colleagues for a second time to discuss repeal of the decades-old law. In Ponte Vedra Beach on Thursday, DeSantis said he wanted to repeal it but not just over the current political fight, and not just the privilege that Disney currently enjoys.
The governor’s words are reminiscent of the state’s 2021 “Big Tech Censorship Crackdown,” in which a law was passed to allow lawsuits against companies like Facebook and Twitter over banning political candidates and equating it to a fight over free speech.
In his speech in Ponte Vedra Beach, DeSantis said the point was to take away the power of “woke” corporations from interfering in Florida politics.
“I would not say that would be retaliatory. The way I view it is there are certain entities that have exerted a lot of influence through corporate means to generate special privileges in the law. I don’t think we should have special privileges in the law at all,” DeSantis said. “Some of these things have developed over the years. I had to deal with this last year, when we passed a law last year to protect Floridians from big tech censorship. The idea was to let them be able to sue under the ‘Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act,’ protect political candidates from being de-platformed, stuff that was good. And it’s being litigated in the courts, which we knew it would. But at the 11th hour, the Legislature slips in a provision in that law that said ‘If you operate a theme park, it doesn’t apply to you.’ And that was meant solely to protect Disney.”
DeSantis said when the provision was added, he had to decide whether to veto the bill and “throw the baby out with the bath water” or allow it to become law as-is, with the protection for theme parks. To be clear, Disney is not the only theme park in Florida. Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Legoland, Busch Gardens and Discovery Cove are all in the state, to name a few.
DeSantis claims he isn’t just targeting Disney over his administration’s current disagreements with the company.
“I don’t think it’s retaliatory, I just think that Disney’s posturing has alienated a lot of people now. And so, the political influence they’re used to wielding, I think has dissipated, so the question is ‘Why would you want to have special privileges in the law, at all?'” DeSantis said. “And I don’t think that we should. But it’s not a matter of acting like those were really great policies. I think that those were policies over decades that were embedded in Florida’s law, largely because they wielded a lot of influence. I think because they’ve been able to do that over the years, I think that’s why they’ve gotten so, that’s one of the reasons they’ve got so far over their skis on this parental rights stuff.”
He said he thinks Disney is used to getting their way, and not having lawmakers stop them. DeSantis said he thinks that’s different now.
“They’re not used to having people that will stand in their way and say ‘Actually, the state of Florida’s going to be governed by the best interests of its people in Florida,” DeSantis said. “We’re certainly not going to bend a knee to woke executives in California. That is not the way the state is going to be run.”
Other than the “big tech carve-out” from 2021, he said he’s never given Disney anything while he’s been governor. DeSantis said he wanted to “reevaluate any special privileges of the law,” not just Disney’s.