DeSantis Calls for End of Walt Disney World’s Self-Rule

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared today that he is asking the Legislature of Florida to repeal the fifty-year-old law that gave Walt Disney World Resort power to manage itself.

In 1967, the Reedy Creek Improvement District was established. It gives Disney legal control and responsibility over 25,000 acres in Orange and Osceola Counties. It includes the planning and zoning powers, along with the obligation to provide firefighting, police and other utilities.

DeSantis has been embroiled in a dispute with Disney Corporation, where its leaders object to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. This law, which restricts and even bans the discussion on sexual orientation and gender identity within public schools, is currently in the middle of an internal political spat.

DeSantis, along with conservative Florida legislators, have been arguing about social media platforms that they feel are unfairly deplatforming conservative voices. The bill, which would have prohibited large social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter from deplatforming candidates for political purposes was rejected by the lawmakers. These lawmakers added a last-minute carve-out that exempted any Florida company from the rules. Disney is also exempted from these rules, as it happens to have many media platforms.

U.S. district judge Robert L. Hinkle, who was representing the plaintiffs in the case against the bill, agreed that it enforces content-based prejudice that violates First Amendment rights and that federal law is pre-emptive. Hinkle issued an injunction to stop the law’s enforcement.

Hinkle cites the exemption for the theme parks as an evidence of discriminatory enforcement in his order. Apart from the carve out, the judge noted other constitutional problems with the bill. DeSantis, however, suggests in his proclamation that this special session should be called to pursue Disney. He states that the only issue with the bill is the carve out and can be severable form the underlying legislation.It states, “[T]he Legislature should make clear that Florida intends to continue to protect consumers from the arbitrary and inconsistent censorship of social media platforms in a viewpoint-neutral manner….”

DeSantis uses his office to call for the deactivation of Reedy Creek Improvement District and makes note of Disney’s special exemption.

While it may work well for culture war politics, one must also consider the possibility that Orange and Osceola county might be interested in providing public services for Disney’s vast resort empire. The largest employer in the counties is Disney, and the most likely their biggest source of indirect and tangential tax revenue from tourism. Right now Disney—through Reedy Creek—actually contracts with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office for millions each year ($15.8 million to outside law enforcement agencies in FY 2017) for protection. This is a great benefit for the counties, but it could also end up being an expense.

The idea that Walt Disney World Resort has the ability to self-rule seems a little too simplistic. It’s a good sign that the company is capable of managing its own self-governance and maintaining a safe, stable, welcoming environment for visitors from all over the globe.

Any suggestion that DeSantis will eliminate some kind of “special treatment” for Disney is accompanied by the possibly mistaken assumption, that the two counties now in control of all this infrastructure will somehow make it better. The reality is that Disney parks will end up in two completely different jurisdictions with their own laws. This is a disaster for all parties. This isn’t about fairness, or the best interest of the residents. This is about punishing those who are not like you and centralizing power to make it happen (a non-conservative way of doing so).