Reedy Creek Improvement District

Disney vs. DeSantis – The Facts Behind the Feud

The feud between Disney and DeSantis continues as the future for the former Reedy Creek Improvement District continues to be uncertain. Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature and Governor DeSantis passed a bill that replaced the Reedy Creek Improvement District and its board with the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and board. Before this legislation was passed, Disney and the Reedy Creek Improvement District came together on an agreement for the future of the district. This has proved to be quite controversial with DeSantis and other Florida leaders who were so focused on the new law and district that they apparently did not see what was going on at Reedy Creek at the time.

During a press conference held at the Reedy Creek Administrative Office on Monday, Governor DeSantis made multiple assertions about The Walt Disney Company before passing the podium to other state leaders who continued to disparage Disney. The press conference was generally hostile towards Disney and Reedy Creek and made lots of assertions about Disney and the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Below is a look at the statements made by Florida state leaders, including Governor DeSantis, along with facts that are behind these statements. The following analysis is based on the facts that are currently publicly available and are not meant to be a sort of legal analysis. It is simply an attempt at a common sense analysis of the facts on hand to determine what the truth is.

Development Agreement

Governor DeSantis said that Disney believes it is above the law. He said, “They (Disney) are not superior to the laws that are enacted by the state of Florida.” He also said, “They thought they could create a development agreement that would render everything we did null and void. That’s not going to work, that’s not going to fly.”

In reality, Disney has made every move within the laws of the state of California. The State of Florida itself approved the Comprehensive Plan upon which the Development Agreement which DeSantis is trying to render “null and void” is based on. This was done on July 17, 2022. It was finalized on February 8, 2023 with Reedy Creek Improvement District.

After the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight Board and Governor DeSantis discovered this Development Agreement and began to attack it, Disney released the following statement on March 28, 2023: “All agreements signed between Disney and the District were appropriate, and were discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums in compliance with Florida’s Government in the Sunshine law.”   

Accurate Party: Disney There is plenty of transparency that has been available for those who have been watching this story develop since the conflict first began. The Development Agreement could be seen in process on the Reedy Creek Improvement District website in its minutes. The process was also publicized in local papers and on the Reedy Creek Improvement District website.

Attraction Safety

During the press conference, it was implied that Disney had safety issues and that Florida would step in with oversight when injuries happen. In reality, Disney has been a leader in safety and continues to develop procedures and best practices that are leveraged across the industry.  In 2001, Walt Disney World along with other industry leaders was instrumental in helping lead efforts with the State of Florida to develop a Memorandum of Understanding requiring quarterly reporting of any serious guest injuries occurring on amusement rides and immediate reporting of those resulting in fatalities. The Memorandum of Understanding also provides for biannual site visits, consultations and reviews of the safety programs at Florida’s permanent amusement facilities.

Accurate Party: Disney – Disney continues to have one of the safest records in the industry. It continues to be a leader with its safety practices. While the state could provide oversight, it does appear that this is only being brought up due to the feud with Disney and not because of a specific incident as none were listed.

Tax Assessment

Governor DeSantis said that how the property in the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District is assessed would be visited so that Disney would be paying what it should be paying in taxes. DeSantis said that it didn’t make sense for Disney to self-assess its property to determine the taxes it should be paying. However, this is not accurate. Disney does not self-assess its own property. All Disney property is assessed annually by the Orange County tax assessor or the Osceola County tax assessor, as applicable. The Orange County tax assessor assesses all property in Orange County. This is the same tax assessor that assesses property for Sea World and Universal as well as Disney.

Accurate Party: Disney – Disney utilizes the same system for tax assessment as other companies with similar situations in Florida. It appears that this system is equal and Disney is being singled out at this point.

Tax Payments

Along with saying that Disney shouldn’t be assessing its own property for taxes, DeSantis also implied that Disney wasn’t paying the taxes it should be. In reality Disney is the largest single tax payer in Central Florida. In 2022, Walt Disney World Resort paid and collected $1.146 billion in state and local taxes.

Accurate Party: Probably Disney – this could be open to interpretation based on how much one thinks the taxes paid should be. However, there is no indication that Disney has done anything remotely illegal in regards to paying its taxes.

Affordable Housing

During the press conference, Governor DeSantis said that the new board for the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District should look into workforce housing. The implication is that Disney is not making efforts to provide affordable housing for its employees. Last year Walt Disney World announced that it would be contributing nearly 80 acres of land for more than 1,300 units of attainable housing for Central Florida. This is one of the more recent actions that Disney has taken to help the community around it be stronger during its 50 year history in the state. Disney has stated that it will continue to be looking for and supporting creative solutions in an effort to make a meaningful impact.

Accurate Party: Disney – Disney continues to work to provide affordable housing for Central Florida.  

Disney in Florida

Governor DeSantis has said that Disney is “woke” company that is only in Florida to make money, push an agenda, and basically swindle the state. He said that the company and situation today is much different than what was in Florida decades ago when the Reedy Creek Improvement District was first formed.

Since opening in 1971, Disney has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the local community. In 2022 alone, Walt Disney World cast members volunteered 233,000 hours through the Disney VoluntEARS program. Over the past 50 years, Disney VoluntEARS have provided millions of volunteer hours throughout Florida. During its 50th Anniversary Celebration, Walt Disney World Resort gave $6.5 million in grants to nonprofit organization including Give Kids The World, Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, Heart of Florida United Way, Hope Partnership, and more.

With 75,000 employees, Walt Disney World Resort is the largest single-site employer in the United States and serves as a catalyst for tourism, recreation and diversifies the region’s economy. These employees can also be eligible for the Disney Aspire program, which enables thousands of part-time and full-time hourly Disney employees and cast members the opportunity to pursue their dreams by providing 100% tuition paid up front at a network of learning partners and universities. There are also 200 additional businesses that operate at Walt Disney World Resort with a combined total of 16,000 employees. They’re more than 20-Florida-owned businesses that operate at Walt Disney World Resort. 

More than $1.5 million has been raised for Make-A-Wish of Central and Northern Florida through purchases of Walt Disney World 50th Anniversary specialty Florida license plates, which will help the organization create treasured memories for families and children with life-threatening medical conditions.  This comes in addition to the partnership between Make-A-Wish and Disney has led to more than 145,000 Disney-inspired wishes have been granted since 1980. The wishes that have been granted at Walt Disney World Resort for children with critical illnesses and their families help them find the hope and joy needed to confront and overcome the challenges of tomorrow.  

Accurate Party: Disney – Disney has a long track record of investing in Florida and the citizens who live there. It has contributed economically to the state and also through its many philanthropic efforts as well.

Statements From the Principle Leaders

During the Annual Shareholder meeting this year, Disney CEO Bob Iger commented on the ongoing feud between DeSantis and Disney during a Q&A portion of the meeting. Iger said, “Let me address this issue, which I haven’t really done much publicly. I’d love the opportunity just to put it all in perspective. First of all, I know you said you’re a resident, I think of Melbourne, Florida. We love the state of Florida. And I think that’s reflected in not only how much we’ve invested over the last 50 years, but how much we’ve given back in the form of jobs and community service taxes which you brought up, tourism, of course, and all sorts of other responsible business practices. We’ve also always respected and appreciated what the state has done for us. It’s kind of been a two-way street. But a year ago, the company took a position on pending Florida legislation. And while the company may have not handled the position that it took very well, a company has a right to freedom of speech just like individuals do. And obviously in taking the position, the governor got very angry about the position Disney took and seems like he’s decided to retaliate against us, including the naming of a new board to oversee the property and the business, in effect to seek to punish a company for its exercise of a constitutional right. And that just seems really wrong to me, against any company or individual but particularly against the company that means so much to the state that you live in. That you can put that in perspective we have over 75,000 employees which I noted in my opening, countless thousands of indirect jobs have been created. About 50 million visitors will go through our gates this year alone, about 8 million of them from outside the U.S. and we are the largest taxpayer in the state. And you may find this interesting as it relates to future taxes but we’re currently planning now to invest over $17 billion in Walt Disney World over the next 10 years. And those investments we estimate will create 13,000 new Disney jobs and thousands of other indirect jobs and they’ll also attract more people to the state and generate more taxes. And, so our point on this is any action is that towards those efforts, simply to retaliate for a position the company took sounds not just anti-business but it sounds anti-Florida, and I’ll just leave it at that.”  

Iger has said that he would sit down and meet with Governor DeSantis. In return, DeSantis has said that he would only sit down with Disney if the company accepted “that they are not going to live under a different set of rules than everyone else.” However, this doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon. “If we can get there, fine,” DeSantis said. “But we’re not there yet.”

Accurate Party: Disney – At this point, it appears that Disney has been playing by the same set of rules as other improvement districts in Florida, which there are plenty. It also appears that Disney has used the laws that are currently in place to protect itself and that Governor DeSantis may be trying to change the system to retaliate against a company that has taken stances he doesn’t agree with.

At this point, this feud is far from over. How it will be resolved is anybody’s guess. What is very clear is that there is a wide gap between where Governor DeSantis stands and where Disney stands. Judging by the press conference on Monday morning, the Florida leaders are not looking to meet in the middle and work with Disney. They want to enforce their will on the company, instead. Only time will tell if this ends up happening or not.

What do you think of the Florida feud between DeSantis and Disney? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below!