Disney strips DeSantis of his fairy tale ending. Good
Gov. Ron DeSantis has spent months (and an entire chapter of his new book) boasting about his victory over a “woke” corporation after demanding that the state Legislature yank the Reedy Creek Improvement District from under Walt Disney Company control.
Clearly, the governor thought he’d written the perfect fairy tale and cast himself as the hero — only to discover that Disney executives flipped the script.
In broad daylight, no less. Before it was infested with the governor’s band of political buddies, the Reedy Creek board signed binding contracts that transfer most of the control of district-owned facilities and future development back into Disney’s hands, and ban the district from using any Disney trademarks. Now the district, renamed the “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District,” appears to be just a payroll, a bundle of debt and tax levies that probably can’t be disturbed.
MORE:CDC’s top priority has to be rebuilding public trust
MORE:Climate change is here; we now must deal with it
MORE:Scandal after scandal, Trump has defied political physics. Will this time be different?
The governor’s response is classic DeSantis. He now wants to waste some of that money on a small army of very expensive attorneys in an effort to unwind those agreements.
In other words, DeSantis’ plan for the district he seized is to take tax money from Disney and use it to sue Disney, in an attempt to circumvent Disney’s control over land Disney owns.
Confused yet? We haven’t even gotten to the role of the Princess Lilibet, who lives in a magical, far-away land called Santa Barbara. (What’s a Disney story without a princess?)
Our story so far: Most Central Floridians remember how this spat started: During a special session of the Florida Legislature, Rep. Randy Fine introduced a sneak attack to abolish the Reedy Creek district. It was an apparent attempt to punish Disney executives for mild, belated criticism of DeSantis-backed bills, including attacks on diversity training and the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which targeted discussions of sexual orientation in schools. (Side note: Fine, a Brevard Republican, asserted last week that DeSantis has since urged him to apply to run Florida Atlantic University. We’re getting Jafar vibes off that one.)
Critics were quick to point out that there were a few reasons not to straight-up abolish the district. Or a billion: The district, created more than 50 years ago to give the company more control over its own permitting and planning for the 38.5 square miles of then-undeveloped land it had purchased, now carries about $1 billion in bond debt.
And some huge, real world responsibilities, including permitting, planning and critical utilities for Disney’s four theme parks, two water parks, a sports complex, a collection of hotels that total more than 40,000 guest rooms and Disney Springs, with its 24-screen movie theater, House of Blues and Cirque du Soleil. The district operates two incorporated cities, full-fledged fire and EVAC departments complete with cranky unions, 170 lane miles of roads, a huge electric plant and natural-gas distribution system, water and wastewater systems.
Many — including this editorial board — have been uneasy about the power that the Reedy Creek district allows Disney to wield, or the untold magnitude of tax payments it’s avoided over the years by taking advantage of its ability to issue government bonds. The district even had the authority (which it never used) to construct a nuclear power plant. But there’s no doubt that the company backed its power with its own cash. Its hand-picked board levied property taxes that are triple or quadruple what other Central Florida cities and counties charge — taxes that Disney was charging itself. Under the first 2022 legislation that would have abolished the board outright, that tax burden and bond debt could have transferred to Orange and Osceola taxpayers.
Without so much as an “oops, my bad,” DeSantis’ minions wrote another secret plan. During a special session in December, lawmakers obediently adopted it. The new legislation took few powers away from the district — but did wrest control from company hands and declared that DeSantis had sole authority to appoint the district’s board.
Unfortunately, those high-priced lawyers and DeSantis’ own staff apparently didn’t bother to pay attention to the agreements the old Reedy Creek board signed off on in the meetings before the state Legislature approved the governor’s hotheaded demands. We’re not sure why. The meetings were open to the public and duly noticed.
As members of those high-priced law firms explained, the old board enacted agreements that transfer most of the control back to the company. There’s also a contract that restricts the district from using any Disney trademarks or changing design aspects of any district-owned properties — ending any possibility of renaming Disney Springs’ parking garages “Ron” and “Casey.”
They were all approved in the Sunshine. They meet the deadlines the Legislature itself set — after the agreements were ratified. And they were rolled out well in advance of the June deadline the first Reedy Creek law set for abolishing the district.
There’s even a hidden Mickey: The restrictive covenants (in effect, a contract between the district and Disney) don’t expire until “21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, king of England living as of the date of this declaration,” a legal (yet delightful) maneuver to protect it against challenges. That’s where Lilibet, the toddler daughter of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, comes into play: She turns two in June. And as the Sentinel’s Jeff Weiner points out, Windsors tend to live a very long time.
Through a spokesperson, DeSantis declared that the new district will rev up its pricey legal superpower and wrest back control, fulminating about “significant legal infirmities” but failing to identify any, and complaining about last-minute maneuvers after launching not one, but two sneak attacks on a publicly held corporation. We suspect he’s living in Fantasyland.
A word to DeSantis: And that’s where this ride should end.
This was a foolish, petty and ultimately selfish political vendetta that could have ended up far worse. If Disney executives had responded to DeSantis in the same vengeful vein — by pulling back even a small fraction of the resources the company has invested in Florida — the economic wreckage could have been massive. Instead, company executives and district officials stayed quiet, bided their time and executed a plan that is both elegant and witty.
From now on, Gov. DeSantis, save your tantrums for your taxpayer-funded mansion and endless trips to court donors and rally support in other states.
Whenever you happen to be in Florida, focus on your actual job: Running a massive state government where people are dying every day of drug overdoses and mass shootings that you barely acknowledge. Where school boards across the state are grimly awaiting the final price tag of the economically reckless voucher bill you just signed. Where insurance rates are skyrocketing and damage claims from back-to-back hurricanes are being summarily denied. Where, every day, we’re discovering more cracks your machinations have inflicted on the fundamental integrity of Florida’s own government.
Stop letting your inner Donald control your behavior. (In this case, we mean Donald Duck.) All you’ve managed to do so far is create a situation where Disney has more control, and potentially more secrecy, than it ever did. No matter how you try to play this, it seems apparent that you were outplayed.
So take your advice from the Queen (and in this case, we mean Queen Elsa). Let. It. Go.
— From the Orlando Sentinel editorial board (TNS).