A functional local government built by the Walt Disney Corporation, tasked with maintaining its colossal Orlando theme park for the past 55 years, is now on the verge of being dismantled thanks to Florida Republicans.
Lawmakers in the state House joined the state Senate on Thursday in voting to approve a bill that, starting in June 2023, would revoke the special self-governing privileges afforded Disney. It now goes to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) for his signature.
The move is widely considered to be retaliation for Disney executives’ critical stance on Florida’s anti-LGBTQ legislation passed last month.
There was no debate on the bill Thursday after chaos erupted between parties. Democrats, outraged by DeSantis’ redistricting map that cut the number of minority districts in half, launched a sit-in protest. Republican House Speaker Chris Sprowls responded by canceling all debate, saying Democrats weren’t being “civil.” According to reports from the House floor, Republicans also had the Wi-Fi turned off and ejected all press.
Earlier this week during a news conference at The Villages, a conservative retirement community, DeSantis called on state legislators, who were already scheduled to convene for a special session to approve a new map of congressional districts, to also consider “termination of all special districts that were enacted in Florida prior to 1968.”
That would include the Reedy Creek Improvement District, DeSantis specified.
Reedy Creek was created via a partnership between Florida lawmakers and the Disney company in 1967, encompassing 25,000 acres of rural land that was largely out of reach of utility providers at the time. Disney linked the area to an electrical grid, installed plumbing, ensured access to clean water, paved more than 130 miles of roads and established a fire department. In exchange, the company has been able to save on taxes.
It remains unclear how, exactly, the dissolution of Reedy Creek would affect Disney World and its various resorts, which are spread between two Florida counties.
DeSantis and Republican colleagues ― who often portray themselves as more business-friendly than their Democratic rivals ― offered little to no explanation for why they want to do away with Reedy Creek.
“Disney is a guest in Florida. Today we remind them,” Republican state Rep. Randy Fine wrote on Twitter. Fine introduced the House version of the bill that would dissolve Disney’s special district.
Disney was initially mum on the Florida legislation prohibiting the discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third-grade public school classrooms. Critics dubbed it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill because, while the word “gay” appears nowhere in the text, it is widely understood that the bill’s supporters are against the normalization of LGBTQ families and individuals. Anyone who violates the legislation can be sued.
The company’s stance, however, changed in March following backlash from LGBTQ advocates and allies. Disney CEO Bob Chapek announced that not only did the company oppose the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, but that it would be donating $5 million to LGBTQ rights organizations including the Human Rights Campaign.
“I know that many are upset that we did not speak out against the bill,” Chapek said during a March 9 shareholder meeting. “We were opposed to the bill from the outset, but we chose not to take a public position on it because we thought we could be more effective working behind the scenes, engaging directly with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.”
Such efforts were “ultimately unsuccessful,” Chapek said.