TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Following April’s special session in the Florida Legislature, the future of Walt Disney World’s tax status has been up in the air.
Disney’s special, quasi-governmental status was set up in 1967, through the Reedy Creek Improvement Act. Now the district’s status could be changing thanks to a shakeup in the company’s executive office.
Senate Bill 4C, written by state senator Jennifer Bradley (R-Fleming Island), with its companion bill in the Florida House written by Rep. Randy Fine (R-Brevard), dissolved the districts created before 1968, and authorized a reestablishment process to renew the districts, or keep them dissolved.
Ahead of 2023, when the reestablishment process would begin, Disney’s former CEO Bob Chapek was removed from executive office, and replaced by his predecessor Bob Iger, temporarily. In a Monday town hall meeting with Disney employees, Iger discussed plans for the future, including regarding Florida following the legislation’s passage.
CNBC reported that Iger had told Disney employees that he “was sorry to see us dragged into the that battle, and I have no idea exactly what its ramifications are in terms of the business itself.” Iger continued, saying the state of Florida was important to Disney, and the reverse was also true.
“To be honest, I think the media’s gotten a little bit over their skis on this. I was asked, and I would say it to you, I think it’s easier to move forward with the guy who didn’t make the mistake than the guy who did,” Fine told WFLA.com “When you are dealing with someone who made a mistake, they are often defensive about it because it was their screwup. Iger I think has already acknowledged it was an error, and that we move forward.”
During the special session, Florida lawmakers passed a bill which removed the tax status of independent special districts approved before the state constitution was ratified in 1968.
The legislation passed, and was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in April, putting the company’s control of the Magic Kingdom in limbo, with the district as it was passed now in the dissolution process.
Part of the issue involving RCID is the actual powers and control they have over their district.
“People have to remember that the pitch to create Reedy Creek was Disney saying ‘we’ll build a city if you give us city powers,’ and then they didn’t build a city. I think they intended to, I don’t think it was bad faith, but they didn’t follow through,” Fine told WFLA.com. “In fact, the two times they created a city, in the case of Golden Oak and in the case of Celebration, they actually kicked those areas out of the special district.”
For the Florida lawmaker, for Disney to get their reinstatement, some things will have to change.
“I think, a couple of things that are bad, the silly things like a nuclear power plant. But things that are real, is Disney’s the only country—company in the United States that has the right to seize other people’s private property without their consent. I think that’s an extraordinary power, that I think is a bad idea, whether you’re a liberal or conservative,” Fine said. “Disney was granted the ability to issue government debt, without anyone’s permission. I think that’s a terrible idea, no matter whether you’re a liberal or conservative. So some of these things are going to go away, and I don’t think it would be all that controversial to do it.”
When it comes to how Walt Disney World currently operates essential services, Fine said discussions were in progress over allowing them to run their own fire department, and other similar services, and that those talks had been happening since May, but that going forward, things would be different if they were to be approved.
“As to what path we take, I think that’s as up in the air as it’s been since May. We’ve been talking since May about multiple ways we could do things moving forward. I think what’s not going to happen is that we are not going to recreate what already exists,” Fine said. “We’re not going to reverse what it is we already did. Because frankly, there were aspects of the Reedy Creek District that were objectively bad ideas whether you are a conservative or a liberal.”
Fine described the reinstatement process to WFLA.com, and said there had been communication between state officials and the Disney Company ahead of 2023.
“Well, to create a new special district would require an act of the legislature. If that was done in regular order, that bill would have to be filed by the first day of session in March,” Fine said. “If it was a local bill, considered a local bill, it would’ve had to have been approved by the relevant delegations prior to that.”
“I have definitely had some discussions about it and I’m certainly interested in being involved as the person who dissolved the district. I would be interested in what we come up with,” Fine said, discussing the process.
While Fine spoke about what would be needed for Disney to remain similar to their current status, Iger’s comments about how the political situation unfolded drew fire from the governor during a recent appearance on Fox News.
In a Wednesday interview on Tucker Carlson Tonight, which the governor posted to his Twitter account, DeSantis said “We didn’t drag them in…they went in on their own and not only opposed the bill, they threatened to get it repealed.”
DeSantis called the legislation at the center of the controversy, House Bill 1557, titled “Parental Rights in Education” but described as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its detractors, was popular among Floridians. The governor told Carlson that he didn’t want the “important policies” to be affected by a “big powerful company” from Burbank, Calif., and that he didn’t care what the company had to say about Florida’s laws.
When asked for comment about Disney’s status, Bryan Griffin, the governor’s press secretary, provided WFLA.com with the following response.
Governor DeSantis does not make “U-turns.” The governor was right to champion removing the extraordinary benefit given to one company through the Reedy Creek Improvement District. We will have an even playing field for businesses in Florida, and the state certainly owes no special favors to one company. Disney’s debts will not fall on the taxpayers of Florida. A plan is in the works and will be released soon.Statement from Bryan Griffin, Press Secretary for Gov. Ron DeSantis
When SB 4C passed in April, Disney pushed back on the move, saying that dissolving Reedy Creek could harm Florida taxpayers, and alleging the state had violated their contract with Disney by dissolving the district.
Concerning the potential impact on Florida if the district is not reestablished, Fine said there would be “zero” impact on Florida’s economy.
WFLA.com has reached out to the Walt Disney Company and Reedy Creek Improvement District for comment. They have not yet responded.