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How (and why) Gov. Ron DeSantis took control over Disney World's special district

In an aerial view, Walt Disney World's iconic Cinderella Castle is seen on the grounds of the theme park this February. On Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took control of Disney's special tax district.
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In an aerial view, Walt Disney World's iconic Cinderella Castle is seen on the grounds of the theme park this February. On Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took control of Disney's special tax district.

Updated February 28, 2023 at 11:51 AM ET

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill on Monday to take control of municipal services and development for the special zone encompassing Walt Disney World. The move deals a major blow to the company's ability to operate with autonomy.

DeSantis says that the special district surrounding Disney World has enabled the park to unfairly skirt local rules and building codes.

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But DeSantis' critics say the bill looks like retaliation for a growing feud between Disney and the governor, which hit a tipping point last year. DeSantis said Disney "crossed the line" by opposing an education bill that restricts classroom discussion around gender identity and sexual orientation.

Here's a rundown of the situation.

What's in the new bill?

"The corporate kingdom finally comes to an end," DeSantis said during a news conference announcing the move on Monday. "There's a new sheriff in town, and accountability will be the order of the day."

The heart of the bill is the appointment of a five-person state board to oversee municipal services, such as fire protection and road maintenance, where Disney World operates.

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The newly appointed board will have the ability to raise revenue to fund services and pay off Disney's debts. DeSantis' previous pledge to strip Disney of its special tax status sparked fears that local taxpayers would be left on the hook, which would, in turn, spark a significant spike in local tax rates.

DeSantis stressed on Monday that under the new structure, Disney would still be responsible for its municipal debts and local governments would not raise taxes.

The governor said the five board members include people who "very much want to see Disney be what Walt envisioned," implying that Disney's values wouldn't be negatively impacted.

The members include Martin Garcia, whose private investment firm regularly donates to Republican candidates, Michael Sasso, a local elections lawyer, and Bridget Ziegler, a conservative school board member and wife of the Florida Republican Party chairman.

In press materials released with the bill signing, DeSantis' office said the bill would also end some of Disney's other special privileges, such as exemption from state regulatory reviews.

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What does the bill mean for Disney?

The creation of the self-governing zone, known as Reedy Creek Improvement District, was instrumental to Disney's decision to build its theme park near Orlando in the 1960s, according to WMFE reporter Amy Green.

The zone sits on nearly 25,000 acres, sandwiched between Orange and Osceola counties. Once a remote and rural area, the Reedy Creek Improvement District received electricity, water, roads and police thanks to Disney's investments.

According to a local tax collector, Disney has taxed itself roughly $53 million each year to pay off the debts from that development.

Disney did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment, but the company has previously told media outlets that it wouldn't fight the government takeover.

What's behind the Disney-DeSantis feud?

Disney, which employs nearly 80,000 people in central Florida, wields great influence in the state.

The company donated to DeSantis during the 2020 election cycle. In 2021, the governor's staff reportedly worked with Disney to give it an exemption from a law designed to crack down on big tech companies.

But the relationship between the two started to sour that same year after Disney took a stricter stance on preventing the spread of COVID-19, mandating its workers show proof of vaccination and its theme park guests continue to wear face coverings.

At the same time, Disney was increasingly drawing criticism from conservatives for making changes to its parks and films to increase inclusivity. Disney World closed Splash Mountain, for example, after a petition accusing it of "stereotypical racist tropes" gained 21,000 signatures.

DeSantis, who has been fighting what he calls "woke indoctrination," said the company "crossed the line" when Disney CEO Bob Chapek said he'd support the repeal of Florida's Parental Rights in Education Act, known by its critics as the "Don't Say Gay" bill.

DeSantis immediately turned Chapek's statement into a fundraising point. A month later, he introduced legislation on revoking Disney's special tax status.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR
Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.