LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The newly appointed board for the now state-controlled Reedy Creek Improvement District met for the first time Wednesday.
What You Need To Know
- Governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation into law Feb. 27, officially commencing state control of Walt Disney World’s special taxing district
- Now a board of special appointees will have their first meeting
- We go in-depth on how we got here
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation into law Feb. 27, officially giving the state control of Walt Disney World’s special taxing district.
“We had a little bit of a tussle last year over school legislation and Disney came out against something that was really about protecting young kids,” DeSantis said before signing the bill.
Reedy Creek firefighters were among those who board members heard from during public comment section of Wednesday's meeting. Union President Jon Shirey said vehicles are in desperate need of repairs and replacements, adding that firefighter staffing levels are barely up from 30-plus years ago.
“I think it’s safe to say Disney has grown exponentially in that span of time,” he told board members.
The board is set to meet again April 12.
It all began with a mouse
In 1967, the Florida Legislature approved the bill creating the special taxing district; Gov. Claude Kirk signed it into law during a ceremony at the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee, with Walt’s brother Roy O. Disney by the governor’s side.
Years before Disney’s Magic Kingdom opened in October of 1971, the work to build Walt’s dream began.
The district gave Disney the same authority as a local county government, providing Disney control of services such as fire protection and utilities.
That was all taken away this year, a product of politics and a Special Legislative Session.
Tussle & change
Disney's special status came under scrutiny amid a public feud between Disney and DeSantis after the company, under then-CEO Bob Chapek, opposed the state’s Parental Rights in Education law, which critics called the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Some say the Republican-controlled legislature’s move to take over Disney’s special taxing district is nothing more than political retribution.
“What we are saying to businesses and individuals across the state is that if you don’t purport to the majority party’s position, you will be in trouble, we will go after you,” State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) said on the House Floor during the Special Session to consider this Reedy Creek bill.
Only time will tell how dramatic the changes truly are. There are expectations that much of the day-to-day will remain the same.
Using Reedy Creek Improvement District, Walt Disney World did not have to go through other local governments for project approvals — whether it be roadways or rides; hotels and resorts.
“My signature will also end Disney’s exemption from Florida building codes and Florida fire prevention code,” DeSantis said at the bill signing event. “It’ll end Disney’s exemption from state regulatory reviews and approval and end Disney’s secrecy by finally ensuring transparency in what goes on in the area.”
It’s worth noting, Disney World did not put up a public fight to resist the state takeover.
“Disney works under a number of different models and jurisdictions around the world, and regardless of the outcome, we remain committed to providing the highest quality experience for the millions of guests who visit each year,” Walt Disney World president Jeff Vahle said in a February 2023 statement.
On the eve of the new board’s first meeting, Disney released a statement on behalf of Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products:
“The Reedy Creek Improvement District created and maintained the highest standards for the infrastructure for the Walt Disney World Resort,” D’Amaro said. “We are hopeful the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight District will continue this excellent work and the new board will share our commitment to helping the local economy continue to flourish and support the ongoing growth of the resort and Florida’s tourism industry.”
While Wednesday’s agenda for the new board is light in content, there are significant changes promised.
The name “Reedy Creek Improvement District” will soon be a name of the past, replaced with the name “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.”
The five board appointees are:
- Martin Garcia of Tampa, who will serve as Chair of the Board.
- Brian Aungst of Pinellas County
- Bridget Ziegler of Sarasota County
- Ron Peri of Windermere
- Michael A. Sasso of Orlando
Some of the members are facing criticism for past remarks and political stances.
Politics and oversight
Board member Bridget Ziegler is the co-founder of Moms for Liberty, wife of the chair of the Republican Party of Florida, and a member of the Sarasota County School Board.
In an interview with Spectrum News 13, Ziegler said the role of the board is not to be political.
“The board of this district is really there to oversee land use, taxing authorities, and make sure we are balancing scales and serving the best interests of Floridians at the end of the day, that’s the goal,” Ziegler said.
Ziegler admits, as a parent and someone who loved the Disney brand, she is “disappointed” with the path the company has taken in recent years in terms of political involvement and content.
“As a consumer and parent, that is a concern of mine, however as a board member for oversight, because of the direction and items coming forward, I don’t know how much that will play, I’m known to share my opinion in various places, but I do take my role as a board member and authority of the board seriously,” Ziegler said.
While some, including area Democratic lawmakers pushed back on the effort to have the state take control of the special district, some inside Reedy Creek embraced it.
Members of Reedy Creek’s public safety division are among those who say a new board and oversight is long overdue.
“For many years there has been a blatant disregard and bias against the first responders here and the lack of concern for public safety,” Jon Shirey, President of the Reedy Creek Firefighters Union said during the bill signing.
Members of Reedy Creek’s Firefighters Union have, for years, expressed concern about their preparedness and response capabilities on property.
Common complaints among union members is not enough staffing nor resources.
Still working under a contract that expired 4 and a half years ago, union members told Spectrum News firefighter staffing levels remain near the same level today as they were in the late 1980s. Critical personnel needed who are qualified to fight fires, respond to specialized rescues and calls.
Union members say they lack the proper working vehicles to run the thousands of calls that come in each year.
“On any given day, we do not have the bare minimum of firefighters recommended by the National Fire Protection Association to respond to structure fires in the majority of the response areas,” Shirey said. “Vehicles are in disrepair often, and we can’t put the minimum on roads to respond to emergencies.”
Some union members told Spectrum News the relationship between first responders and just ousted board members was nonexistent. It's something they hope will change.
While the new board members are just starting, Ziegler told Spectrum News that she vows to make public safety a top priority.
“They’re out there risking their lives and ensuring our safety and those inside this district are no different and we want to make sure we evaluate that and support them so they can do the job and make sure public safety is our highest priority, that is something we’ll be taking a look at immediately,” Ziegler said.