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Gov DeSantis Signs Bill Revoking Disney World’s ‘Corporate Kingdom’ Status in Latest Blow to the Entertainment Company

Published: February 28, 2023
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks after the primary election for the midterms during the "Keep Florida Free Tour" at Pepin’s Hospitality Centre in Tampa, Florida, U.S., Aug. 24, 2022. (Image: REUTERS/Octavio Jones)

On Monday, Feb. 27, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that takes control of a special tax district surrounding Walt Disney World that for half a century allowed Walt Disney Co to operate with a high degree of autonomy.

“The corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” DeSantis said during a press conference on Monday concerning the matter.

State Republicans last year targeted Disney after it publicly clashed with DeSantis — who is widely considered to be running for president in 2024 — over a law that restricts classroom instruction on gender ideology and sexual orientation.

In March, Disney’s then-chief executive officer, Bob Chapek, publicly voiced disappointment with the bill saying he called DeSantis to express concern about the legislation becoming law. 

This month, Florida lawmakers passed a bill, which DeSantis signed into law, that authorizes the governor to appoint five supervisors, such as fire protection, public utilities, waste collection, and road maintenance in the region where Disney World operates. The quasi-government entity also has the authority to raise revenue to pay outstanding debt and cover the cost of services. 

“We have a situation here that was basically indefensible from a policy perspective,” DeSantis said. “How do you give one theme park its own government and then treat all the other theme parks differently? We believe that that was not good policy.” 

Speakers at the bill-signing ceremony included a parent who criticized Disney for speaking out against the state’s education bill, saying the company “chose the wrong side of the moral argument.” Another person who identified himself as a longtime Disney theme park employee took issue with the company’s policies regarding vaccinations.

Disney World is the largest employer in central Florida with close to 75,000 employees and drew 36.2 million visitors in 2021, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.

Reedy Creek Improvement District

The area Disney is losing governance over is known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which spans some 25,000 acres surrounding the company’s main theme park in Florida. 

So far, Disney has not commented on the change but did say previously that the company would fight the decision by Florida’s governor to take over the area.

“For more than 50 years, the Reedy Creek Improvement District has operated at the highest standards, and we appreciate all that the District has done to help our destination grow and become one of the largest economic contributors and employers in the state,” Jeff Vahle, Walt Disney World President, previously said in a statement. 

The agreement Disney had with the State of Florida even potentially allowed it to construct a nuclear power plant or airport on Walt Disney World property had it wanted to do so. 

While the bill’s provisions took effect on Monday, the legislation does allow the district to continue operating as Reedy Creek for two years to allow an ordered transition. 

The legislation stipulates that current board members’ terms will end the moment the law takes effect, and DeSantis said he would appoint their replacements on Monday. The new board is expected to meet for the first time next week, according to DeSantis. 


A long list of troubles

DeSantis’s move is the latest in a lengthening list of controversies and trouble to hit Disney.

In February, the company shed approximately 7,000 employees after it announced that its streaming service, Disney+, lost 2.4 million subscribers. 

The company is also grappling with a series of box office failures including “Lightyear” the company’s latest addition to the Toy Story franchise. 

The flick became the lowest-grossing film in the franchise’s history which to date has made over $3.3 billion.

Also bombing at the box office was the fall release of “Strange World,” which lost around $147 million. The film featured the first openly LGBT teenaged Disney character, who discusses his crush in the movie.

Reuters contributed to this report.