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Disney’s Reedy Creek to be renamed, get DeSantis-picked board

DeSantis was going to dissolve the board. Under a bill being taken up in special session, it would be renamed instead.
 
The sign outside the Reedy Creek Improvement District administrative office building is seen on April 23, 2022, at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista.
The sign outside the Reedy Creek Improvement District administrative office building is seen on April 23, 2022, at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista. [ PAUL HENNESSY | SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire ]
Published Feb. 6, 2023|Updated Feb. 6, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — After trying to dissolve Disney’s special taxing district last year, Republican lawmakers on Monday released a new plan: Rename the district and let Gov. Ron DeSantis choose the people in charge.

Under House Bill 9B, released Monday afternoon, the Reedy Creek Improvement District will become the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District within two years.

And instead of Disney controlling the district, the district’s five board members will be appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate.

The legislation is the latest twist in DeSantis’ clash with The Walt Disney Co. after the company opposed Florida’s Parental Rights in Education legislation last year, called the “don’t say gay” bill by critics.

To retaliate, DeSantis turned his ire on Reedy Creek, the unusual Disney-controlled special taxing district that has served as the governing body for the Walt Disney World Resort since 1967.

Related: Florida lawmakers to hold special session to consider state-run board for Disney tax district

Lawmakers, at his urging, passed a bill last year that would “dissolve” Reedy Creek by June this year. But the legislation had critical flaws.

It did not say how the state would handle Disney’s nearly $1 billion in bond debt, which would fall on the residents of Orange and Osceola counties if Disney’s ability to tax itself was removed from law.

The legislation also broke the law by violating the “pledge” the state made to the company when it created the district, Reedy Creek told its investors last year.

Under this week’s bill, “the Reedy Creek Improvement District is not dissolved as of June 1, 2023, but continues in full force and effect under its new name.”

Walt Disney World Resort’s president, Jeff Vahle, said in a statement that the company was monitoring the legislation, “which is complex given the long history of the Reedy Creek Improvement District.”

“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,” Vahle said.

While Reedy Creek is not being dissolved, the legislation strips Disney of its control over the 39-square-mile district in Orange and Osceola counties. The company currently chooses the five members of the district’s governing board, which can create its own fire department, seize land via eminent domain and even has the state’s permission to build a nuclear power plant.

Under the new legislation, the governor would appoint members to four-year terms, serving a maximum of three terms. Anyone who worked for a theme park or entertainment complex, or one of its subcontractors, during the last five years would be restricted from serving on the board.

The legislation also removes the board’s ability to build a stadium, nuclear power plant or an airport, said Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud, the House bill sponsor. It can also no longer spend public funds to advertise within their district, which Hawkins called “an unfair advantage to the Universal, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens of the world.”

The new district would also no longer take property outside their district through eminent domain, he added.

“They can start taking property from that area to Ocala if they want to,” Hawkins said. “That goes away.”

The legislation is expected to pass this week during a special legislative session to hear this and other bills.