DeSantis appoints well-connected Republicans to Reedy Creek board

With new legislation in place, the governor asserts control over the board instead of Walt Disney Co.
The entrance to Walt Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District headquarters in Lake Buena Vista, Wednesday, January 25, 2023. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida legislators have voted to dissolve Reedy Creek by June.
The entrance to Walt Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District headquarters in Lake Buena Vista, Wednesday, January 25, 2023. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida legislators have voted to dissolve Reedy Creek by June. [ JOE BURBANK | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published Feb. 27|Updated Feb. 27

Declaring “There’s a new sheriff in town,” Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed the bill that would allow his appointees to control the board of the Reedy Creek Improvement District instead of Walt Disney Co.

At a special session called by the governor in early February, lawmakers passed a bill that kept the special district’s tax benefits, but renamed it the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, removed some powers and gave DeSantis the power to appoint the board’s members.

On Monday in Lake Buena Vista, he announced his selections: Martin Garcia, a prominent Republican Tampa attorney, as the chairperson of the board; Bridget Ziegler, a Sarasota school board member and an early founder of the conservative education group Moms for Liberty; Brian Aungst Jr., a Clearwater attorney and son of a former Clearwater mayor; Mike Sasso, a Central Florida attorney; and Ron Peri, founder of the ministry The Gathering and a former airline software company CEO.

Ziegler helped craft the state’s Parental Rights in Education Act, which prohibits classroom instruction and discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade — and in older grades if they are not “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” She’s married to Christian Ziegler, the chairperson of Florida’s Republican Party.

Garcia was the chairperson for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s campaign in 2010. His name came up during the federal trial about DeSantis’ removal of Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren from office. Larry Keefe, a top aide to DeSantis, said he spoke to Garcia as he gathered research about Warren.

Sasso was previously appointed by DeSantis to the Public Employees Relations Commission and to the Fifth District Court of Appeal Judicial Nominating Commission.

Peri, from his ministry, has argued that the United States is a Christian nation and talked about local school boards being “off the rails.”

In recent years, DeSantis has built closer ties with conservatives who embrace nationalist ideas that see the true identity of the nation as Christian. DeSantis has infused Florida civics lessons with those ideas, and most recently top state education officials have began exploring a “classical and Christian” alternative to the College Board’s SAT exam.

Florida began revisiting the Reedy Creek district after the company put out a statement opposing the Parental Rights in Education bill, which opponents decried as the Don’t Say Gay bill.

But on Monday, DeSantis said the company’s statement was only a “mild annoyance.” Instead, he said Disney had a “goal to inject a lot of this sexuality into the programming for young kids,” and that the special privileges for Disney were indefensible policy.

“We believe being joined at the hip with this one California-based company was not something that was justifiable or sustainable,” DeSantis said.

It’s unclear what the takeover of Reedy Creek will mean for Disney. When the bill was being considered by the Legislature, Republican senators said the bill would not affect the operation of Disney’s theme parks. Yet during Monday’s news conference, DeSantis said he believed the board could veto mask requirements for park patrons, which Disney required during 2020 and 2021.

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DeSantis said board members want to see Disney be “what Walt envisioned.” Speakers invited by the governor’s office to speak at Monday’s news conference railed against Disney’s programming, with one saying it was a way of promoting “immorality.”

DeSantis has taken advantage of his appointment powers recently to reshape state boards, most notably when he installed six conservatives to the board of the New College of Florida. The governor also replaced the entire Pinellas Housing Authority board.

The Reedy Creek district was established in 1967 and allowed Disney to act like its own government, controlling land use, fire prevention and more.

DeSantis had promised to dissolve the district, but the bill he signed last year didn’t specify how the state would handle nearly $1 billion in bond debt, which some feared would have to be paid by residents of Orange and Osceola counties. With the new legislation, the bond debt will remain the district’s responsibility.

The Reedy Creek legislation had the support of the district’s firefighters and first responders, who gave DeSantis a gift at the end of the conference.

Times/Herald staff writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.