I can’t remain silent about the absolutely insane feud Florida governor Ron DeSantis has started with Walt Disney World. If you haven’t been following it, here’s what it’s about. Over fifty years ago Walt Disney decided to create a mega theme park on the East Coast. He quietly bought up 27,000 acres of orange groves and swampland in central Florida. He asked the Florida legislature to create a special tax zone to manage it.

This may seem odd. Certainly, the way the Florida Republicans spin it, you would think it was a trick Disney pulled to avoid taxes and lawful control by the state and local governments. Actually, Walt Disney wanted to avoid the problems he had in Anaheim, California, with Disneyland. Local governments allowed unchecked development right up to the gates of the park. Walt hated the honky tonk.

He wasn’t going to make that mistake in Florida. He bought 43 square miles of land as a way of insulating his resorts from external commercial development. He didn’t want to deal with the local governments of at least two counties that contained the land he bought. The state established the Reedy Creek Development District. This was an independent agency that was granted control over Disney’s land.

Walt wanted control

Why would Disney need this special district? After all, the company owned the land and should be able to do what it wanted as long as the use was safe. Well, no. Local governments have the right to set building codes that govern how structures must be constructed. They can establish zoning areas that dictate what sort of activity can take place in a part of their jurisdictions. Disney feared that local politics would tangle up his plans for the massive resort.

He wasn’t wrong. Local residents were furious when they learned that the various real estate companies that bought land at low prices were owned by Disney. The Orlando newspapers were filled with angry articles condemning the mouse house. Also, rural Florida county governments were unlikely to understand the needs of a project like Disney World.

For fifty years the Reedy Creek Development District board established building codes, zoning, fire and police protection, and roads for the massive resort. The board was elected by Disney and supported its goals. DeSantis describes this as an anti-democratic move by a greedy company. He’s horribly wrong.

First and foremost, Disney World has grown to be Florida’s largest single employer. Over 70,000 Florida residents work there. Orlando has grown from a rural area into one of the country’s premiere vacation destinations. Tax revenues and Florida business profits have benefited from Disney World.

walt was right and Florida won

Reedy Creek has proven to be an excellent steward of its domain. The roads are excellent and well-maintained. It pays local sheriff’s departments to provide police protection and traffic enforcement. Disney’s building standards far exceed any local or national building codes. In short, the entire Disney World enterprise, including Reedy Creek has a half-century record of excellent operations. Beyond that, it has issued over a billion dollars in bonds to cover infrastructure construction. The Walt Disney Company was paying back bondholders.

When former Disney president Bob Chapik condemned the DeSantis anti-LGBTQ legislation that forbade teachers to talk about sex, particularly alternative life styles, DeSantis retaliated by sponsoring legislation to end Reedy Creek. It wasn’t a very well-thought-out move. When cooler heads analyzed this move, they realized that if Reedy Creek goes away, the bond issue and other costs of maintaining Disney World’s infrastructure would fall on local counties.

DeSantis’ latest move was to replace Reedy Creek with a new development board he appointed. He populated it with loyal followers and Christian extremists. He wanted his board to punish Disney. The initial meeting of the board gave clear signs of what they had in mind. One proposal was to forbid masks on the property. Disney has been slower than the state in relaxing mask rules. They also indicated that they would tighten up building codes and zoning.

That is the exact reason Disney wouldn’t build Disney World unless the company could regulate zoning and codes. Walt and his brother Roy knew all too well how local governments could pass unreasonable restrictions on the massive development.

The mouse struck back

Disney isn’t stupid. Before DeSantis could disband Reedy Creek, the board passed several resolutions that can’t expire for decades. These resolutions gave Disney control over building and safety. DeSantis’ new board was stripped of all power except for basic infrastructure and the billion-dollar debt. DeSantis instructed his legal team to break those resolutions.

Most recently, at a stockholders’ meeting, Disney president Bob Iger called the DeSantis government anti-business and anti-Florida. It certainly seems that way to me. Disney and Reedy Creek have been excellent Florida citizens. Walt Disney World has created more jobs in Florida than anyone in history. The entire Orlando economy depends on Disney’s success. What sane governor would try to destroy this?

Maybe Bob Chapik shouldn’t have commented on a Florida law. He didn’t until a large number of Disney World Cast Members complained about his silence. By the way, Disney is a major contributor to most political candidates in Florida. Chapik threatened to turn that money off.

I think that threat, more than the objection to the law, is what upset the governor and legislature. I don’t understand what harm Reedy Creek ever did to the state or local governments. Disney World theme parks and hotels have incredible safety records. Millions of happy guests visit every week. These guests spend billions of dollars in the Orlando area. What governor in his right mind would try to hurt that?

Make it simple for stupid voters

This sort of insanity is the hallmark of the Republican leaders who were swept into office over the last decade. Since dissolving Reedy Creek, DeSantis, and his Republican legislature have passed laws that censure books and forbid teaching black history and multicultural studies. Libraries have been forced to pull books off their shelves because they offend the right-wing Republicans.

I’m not saying that The Walt Disney Company is without fault. I know it is one of the world’s most beloved companies. It’s been guilty of some questionable employment practices. It also does a decent job of fixing things once enough noise is made. Theme park employees have had their base pay increased to a living wage. There is a good representation of all races, creeds, and orientations. The company is still guilty of ageism. Older employees are routinely the first to go in layoffs. That’s unlikely to change soon. If you are over fifty, watch out.

The main tool that the Republicans use is oversimplification. This technique was started by talk radio hosts. Many had a genius for creating slogans and catchphrases that made complex issues seem logical and simple. DeSantis is a good example. He claimed that Reedy Creek was bad because it was controlled by a company for its own benefit. We all know that is evil, right? Companies shouldn’t own local governments.

It’s easy to get behind that. The evil mouse empire is exploiting Florida by making its own rules for its own benefit. Rubber-stamp Republicans got behind that in a second, just as they leaped to the rescue to keep corrupting books out of the libraries. Simplify, simplify, simplify until thought isn’t required at all.

The facts prove that for fifty years, Disney and Reedy Creek have been nothing but good for Florida and its people. It made money, but so did everyone else. Nobody can find a single example of corruption associated with Walt Disney World or Reedy Creek. That’s a fact. Yes, Reedy Creek passed zoning that permitted unfettered construction of the world’s most popular (and safe) resort. It built wonderful roads. It let Disney construct over 200 acres of solar energy cells. It provided fire and police services for millions of guests. What did Ron DeSantis see that I missed?

Speaking for myself, and hopefully not violating my NDA as a former Cast Member, I can say firsthand that the reason Walt Disney World is so successful is that every single Cast Member is trained to put the guests first. Disney sells happiness. Obviously it’s doing a good job. What has Ron DeSantis contributed to anyone?

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  1. I have to agree with you on this one.

    Yeah, Disney had no business weighing in on that bill, misrepresenting it in the process (particularly disturbing as Disney deals with children, you would think they would object to sexualizing young children in school). Disney certainly seems to be plenty good at punishing themselves with boring unpopular over-woke content (and the firing of Gina Carrano from Mandalorian over… nothing)

    But the DeSantis reaction was a naked publicity stunt without any positive impact for his state.

    But it did send a message…

    1. Author

      The Don’t Say Sex bill deeply offends trans and gay people. It doesn’t really protect kids. I agree that Chapik shouldn’t have denounced it. I don’t think DeSantis’ insane move sent any kind of message other that he is willing to sacrifice his state to run for president. If his lunatic-populated board finds a way to hurt Walt Disney World, Disney will go on, but up to 75,000 jobs will be lost directly from Disney World, plus at least that many from the other businesses that feed on Disney’s popularity.

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