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DeSantis eliminates self-governed district and Disney’s 56-year ‘Corporate Kingdom’ — what it means legally

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis(R) signs HB9 into law.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signs Florida HB 9 into law, eliminating Disney’s self-governed Reedy Creek Development District.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill on Monday that he says brings an end to Disney’s reign over the “unaccountable Corporate Kingdom” that is Walt Disney World. The move has been denounced as legislative blackmail by critics as DeSantis took aim at Disney after the company voiced vocal opposition to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, often referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Prior to the new legislation, Disney World was located in a special taxing district comprised of 25,000 acres in Orange and Osceola counties called the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The district was created in 1967 via state law which gave the Walt Disney Company governmental control over the land in and around its central Florida theme parks.

Since the framework was set up, Disney has collected and paid hefty sales taxes, tourist development, and property taxes to the state and county. Since the district was created, it has operated like a county government with Disney being solely responsible for shouldering the cost of power, water, road maintenance, fire protection, and other typical municipal services without contribution from local taxpayers. The Reedy Creek Improvement District generally maintains roadways and buildings at a higher standard than its neighboring counties.

Photo by Olga Thompson/Walt Disney World Resort via Getty Images.

Cinderella Castle inside Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Photo by Olga Thompson/Walt Disney World Resort via Getty Images)

The new law ends Disney’s self-governing power and puts the land area under the direct control of a state board of five supervisors who are appointed by the governor. That area has now been renamed the “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.” The new board will then oversee municipal services such as fire protection, public utilities, waste collection, and road maintenance; it is also empowered to raise revenue to pay for those services. The newly-created district will also inherit sizable debt held by Reedy Creek.

Enactment of the new law is a major political victory for DeSantis, whose public attacks on Disney as a “woke corporation” helped elevate his national profile in anticipation of the 2024 presidential election.

“Allowing a corporation to control its own government is bad policy, especially when the corporation makes decisions that impact an entire region,” said DeSantis in a statement. “This legislation ends Disney’s self-governing status, makes Disney live under the same laws as everybody else, and ensures that Disney pays its debts and fair share of taxes.”

Disney has long been Florida’s largest employer, providing jobs to nearly 80,000 people, with a payroll of over $3 billion.

Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Editor’s note: This piece was updated from its original version to correct information about Reedy Creek debt.

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos