TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered an investigation into a last-minute deal made between Disney and the outgoing Reedy Creek Improvement District board that handed the company much of the governing power in the district for the next 30 years.

What You Need To Know

The move comes after members of the newly seated, state-controlled board complained that the agreement left them little power over the renamed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

"This essentially makes Disney the government," Board member Ron Peri told Specrtrum News digital partner, the Orlando Sentinel last week. "This board loses, for practical purposes, the majority of its ability to do anything beyond maintain the roads and maintain basic infrastructure."

The Reedy Creek Improvement District was established in 1967 as a special taxing district that gave Disney self-governing status and unique privileges, including the ability to manage is own roadways, utilities and emergency services, and draft building codes and regulations.

The company drew the ire of DeSantis when then-CEO Bob Chapek spoke out against the state's Parental Rights in Education bill — dubbed "Don't Say Gay" by its opponents.

In response, the governor vowed to dissolve the RCID because he said Disney's "ideologies" did not represent Florida values, and that it was unfair to treat one company different than others in the state.

“Since the 1960s, they’ve (Disney) enjoyed privileges unlike any company or individual in the state of Florida has ever enjoyed," DeSantis said in a February press conference. "They, of course, control their own government right here in Central Florida. They had exemptions from laws that everybody else had to follow. And they were able to get huge amounts of benefits without paying their fair share of taxes and even racked up $700 million worth of municipal debt."

The Florida Legislature took up the measure and once passed, DeSantis signed it into law, declaring that Disney's "corporate kingdom comes to an end."

With the establishment of the new board — made up of members chosen by DeSantis — state officials said they planned to exert more oversight on the district, but days before the Legislature passed the law, Disney and the RCID board in place at the time put together a 30-year agreement that Peri says left them with little control over anything beyond the ability to "maintain the roads and maintain the basic infrastructure."

The current board voted to hire attorneys to challenge the agreement and the Florida Attorney General's Office sent a letter last week demanding all communications concerning the agreement from the former members of the RCID board.

In a statement to Spectrum News, Disney said: "All agreements signed between Disney and the district were appropriate and were discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums in compliance with Florida’s Government.”

And attorney Jacob Schumer, who has experience practicing law involving local governments, told Spectrum News that the agreements between Disney and the RCID appear to have been done by the book.

“The agreement that sets the land development regulations in stone for 30 years, that seems very solid," Schumer said. "It’s very typical of what other governments do. The only thing that’s atypical is that it applies to such a big property — Disney World is big. And also, it basically says Disney gets to do whatever it wants, which is not typical, but also, Reedy Creek is atypical in that its whole purpose is to make Disney succeed.”

Now, on top of potential litigation by the current board and the request for information by the State Attorney General's Office, DeSantis has ordered Florida Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel to probe the agreement, which he says was enacted to "usurp the authority of the CFTOD board."

"These collusive and self-dealing arrangements aim to nullify the recently passed legislation, undercut Florida's legislative process, and defy the will of Floridians," DeSantis said in a letter to Miguel. "In addition, based on intial observations of counsel, the RCID board's actions appear to suffer from serious legal infirmities, including, among other things, inadequate notice, lack of consideration, improper delegation of authority, and ethical violations, such as conflicts of interest and self-dealing."

DeSantis' letter orderd analysis of the following:

  • RCID's adherence to applicable Florida civil and criminal laws and ethics requirements;
  • The qualifications of RCID' s prior Board of Supervisors and the legal validity of their actions;
  • The involvement of Walt Disney World employees and agents in the execution of RCID's actions;
  • Any financial gain or benefit derived by Walt Disney World as a result of RCID's actions and RCID's justification for such actions;
  • All RCID board, employee, or agent communications related to RCID' s actions, including those with Walt Disney World employees and agents; and
  • All RCID board, employee, or agent communications related to House Bill 9-B, Reedy Creek Improvement District, Orange and Osceola Counties, and the CFTOD.

DeSantis closed his letter by telling Miguel that "any legal or ethical violations should be referred to the appropriate authorities."

Disney CEO Responds

Speaking during Disney's 2023 annual shareholder meeting Monday, current CEO Bob Iger said that while the company's initial stance on the Parental Rights in Education bill may not have been ideal, it shouldn't open the door for the level of punitive action DeSantis and the state have pursued.

"And, obviously, in taking the position, the governor got very angry about the position Disney took," Iger said. "And seems like he’s decided to retaliate against us, including the naming of a new board to oversee the property and the business — in effect to seek to punish a company for its exercise of a constitutional right. And that just seems really wrong to me."

Spectrum News 13 reporter Ashley Carter contributed to this story.


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