Disney Is a Kingdom Within a State

Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis is trying to revoke Disney’s self-governance. Photo: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Speaking this week at the Barnstorm Theater, a convincing pastoral-hayloft replica in the ultraconservative New Urbanist stronghold the Villages, Florida governor Ron DeSantis announced a special legislative session aimed at dissolving a special tax district — created 55 years ago to spur the development of Walt Disney World — as a form of political retribution for the Walt Disney Company’s public opposition to his “Don’t Say Gay” law. For half a century, Disney has been, in practice, a little kingdom inside the state. Tax incentives and other giveaways for powerful corporations are standard in most cities and counties, but what Disney was able to wrangle in Florida was more akin to creating an entirely new government. Laying the groundwork for Mickey Mouse’s quasi nationhood was almost easy. Undoing it will likely be much, much more difficult.

When the Reedy Creek Improvement District was created outside Orlando in 1967, it represented a unique opportunity for fast-growing Florida and for Disney’s global ambitions. The state was happy to hand over 38.5 square miles of what was then uninhabited swampland, and Walt Disney, who had tried unsuccessfully to expand the footprint of Disneyland in California, was grateful to have more space to plot out his visions — including a prototype city of the future. (Disney died in 1966, just before the district was officially created.) The district was originally designed to speed up the construction process for what would become the Magic Kingdom, where building, say, a neo-Gothic cathedral would have required major code and zoning exemptions if they were to work through existing permitting processes.

Operating as a functioning government overseeing mostly theme-park lands, the Reedy Creek Improvement District has its own elected officials and its own municipal agencies including a planning department, water department, fire department, and even a transportation department, which includes oversight of the country’s largest monorail system. Changing those jurisdictions would have tremendous impact on other local governments; most critically, Disney, which employs about 80,000 people here, has about $2 billion in bond debt, so the Reedy Creek Improvement District is currently operating at a loss. It doesn’t matter much to Disney, which makes Scrooge McDuck amounts of cash elsewhere, but if the district was dissolved into the adjacent counties, per the plan, those counties would be responsible for assuming those costs, which the Miami Herald estimates would increase taxes for Orlando-area households by $2,200 annually.

The repercussions from DeSantis’s posturing could also be more financially devastating for the state: Disney announced last year that it planned to relocate the bulk of its Imagineering operations — about 2,000 jobs — to Florida, but in light of recent legislation, LGBTQ+ employees recently signed an open letter urging Disney to cancel the deal.

DeSantis is trying to position Disney’s special status in the state as an example of corporate overreach that must be tamped down at all costs, yet his actions are the ones disenfranchising constituents. In the same legislative session, he’s trying to suppress voters: Related bills that have already advanced through Florida’s state senate are aimed at eviscerating several of the state’s historically Black congressional districts. Interestingly, the way these bills are written, they don’t specifically target Disney’s district; instead, they seek to eliminate all special districts created — by pure coincidence — before 1968, which would wipe out a handful of other special districts. Florida will still be brimming with similar tax districts that aren’t being penalized for their political views, the most famous example being the Villages — that booming Disney World for Republican boomers where DeSantis stumped just this week. Should DeSantis’s bills pass, they’ll be just fine.

Disney Is a Kingdom Within a State