After weeks of sparring with the Walt Disney Co. after they criticized one of his prize pieces of legislation, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Friday signed a law that dismantles a special tax district created 55 years ago that enabled the company to build what has become the world’s most popular theme park.
The spat began nearly a month ago, when Disney chief executive Bob Chapek issued a statement criticizing a parental rights law that prohibits discussions of gender issues in public school classes up to third grade and potentially through high school. Chapek said the company would work to repeal the law, seen by many to be potentially harmful to LGBTQ youth. That seemed to infuriate DeSantis.
“You‘re going to marshal your company’s might to attack the parents of Florida?” DeSantis said Friday. “We view that as provocative.”
The dissolution of the Reedy Creek Improvement District won’t happen until June 2023, but officials in surrounding communities worry about how they’ll manage a more than $1 billion debt obligation that would shift from Disney to local governments. They also say the $163 million a year Disney pays for public services within the special district would be a “catastrophic burden” that could eventually raise individual property taxes $2,500 a year.
Disney has not commented on the legislation since DeSantis introduced it Tuesday during a special legislative session. The bill was hustled quickly through the GOP-led House and Senate, going from a proclamation by DeSantis to a final vote in little more than 48 hours.
The legislation came with only a page and a half of analysis, leaving many to wonder what the actual impact will be. Disney World employs nearly 70,000 workers, covers 40 square miles and brings in more than $20 billion a year in tourism revenue.
The governor told local officials they shouldn’t fret.
“We’re going to take care of all that. Don’t worry. We have everything thought out,” DeSantis said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that somehow Disney is going to get a tax cut out of this. They’re going to pay more taxes.”
The Orange County tax collector said his office needs more than assurances.
“The big thing is that on paper, at the outset when Reedy Creek goes away, Disney is relieved of paying $163 million per year in property taxes,” Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph said. “I wish my parents would have ‘punished’ me that way.”
DeSantis invited right-wing activist Chris Rufo to the bill signing. Rufo has been a prominent voice in fighting critical race theory in schools. Along with the Disney bill, the governor signed into a law legislation that prohibits teachers from giving lessons that make students feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other psychological form of distress” because of their race. It also bans corporations from diversity training that would have the same effect.
Rufo took aim at Disney’s diversity training program.
“This is a direct message to the CEO of Disney, Bob Chapek. This program called Reimagine Tomorrow is not only morally wrong, it is now illegal in the state of Florida,” Rufo said. “And so we’re going to give you the weekend to make some adjustments to immediately abolish this program, because on Monday, if this is still part of Disney’s human resources program, there will be consequences.”