Disney district’s privileges remain even as new board takes over | Commentary

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Disney district’s privileges remain even as new board takes over | Commentary

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Disney district’s privileges remain even as new board takes over | Commentary
By Richard Foglesong
Guest Columnist

Mar 12, 2023
Cars drive under a sign greeting visitors near the entrance to Walt Disney World, July 2, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The first meeting of the new board of Walt Disney World’s government — overhauled by sweeping legislation signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis as an apparent punishment for Disney publicly challenging Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill — dealt with the rote affairs any other municipal government handles. (John Raoux/AP)

Our Florida governor has been loud and clear: the Walt Disney Co. shouldn’t have privileges its competitors don’t share. I generously agree.

When 1967 legislation granted Disney a special-purpose government that I dubbed a Vatican with Mouse Ears in my 2001 book, “Married to the Mouse,” they gained the prerogative to plan, zone and perform building inspections throughout their property — a competitive advantage saving them time and money in all they built.

It’s the kind of advantage that Gov. Ron DeSantis said he’s going after by appointing a new board to oversee the improvement district once known as Reedy Creek.

Example: In the mid-1980s Disney and Universal Studios raced to open the area’s first movie-studio theme park. Universal started first but was hobbled by having to comply with external regulations. In the end, Disney-MGM Studios opened 13 months ahead of Universal, about the same time needed for land-permitting.

Weren’t these regulatory advantages removed by DeSantis and the Legislature with the recent moves to take over Reedy Creek oversight? No. Exactly two powers were excised: the power to build an airport and to construct a nuclear power plant, neither of which, as I know from my research, Disney ever contemplated exercising. When they came, they asked for a lot, knowing they would get it.

And Disney’s exemptions grew as the county’s powers grew. In 1985, Orange County adopted an impact fee requiring new development to pay 52% of the cost of needed road improvements. Yet Disney claimed an exemption based on the terms of their Reedy Creek charter. At the time, their announced plans for hotel and shopping complexes would have generated $2.6 million in impact fees.

The same occurred when Orange County adopted a law-enforcement tax for property owners in unincorporated parts of the county — places where the sheriff is first responder. Again, Disney scored an exemption.

Was this abuse corrected by DeSantis and the Legislature? No, a “new sheriff” may have come to town in the form of a new board of supervisors, as DeSantis called it, but the powers and prerogatives of the board essentially remained the same.

And what of the $1 billion in bonded debt they inherited? Beforehand, Reedy Creek borrowed a lot because they could borrow so cheaply, claiming the district contained a city with real residents and therefore able to issue tax-free municipal bonds. Tax-free as in subsidized by the federal government aka federal taxpayers.

How is that even legal? It’s legal because Disney said it was going to build a real city with real residents when they came in the 1960s: they said 20,000 people would live and work and play there. And the state Supreme Court, able to say yea or nay, believed them and the power was granted.

Was it a false representation? In hindsight, obviously. If the court’s decision was errant when made in 1968, is it still errant today?

These advantages granted to Reedy Creek still remain. So if it’s wrong when Disney does it, is it wrong when DeSantis does it?

Richard Foglesong is a professor of politics, emeritus at Rollins College and the author of “Married to the Mouse.”
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