Here’s How DeSantis And His Board Could Change Disney World


Florida lawmakers introduced a new amendment Tuesday to dissolve a controversial development agreement between Walt Disney World and the special district that oversees it, part of broader measures Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) suggested the state and the board he handpicked to run the special district may take against Disney, which could lead to broad changes in how the theme parks are regulated—and possibly impact guests’ theme park trips.

Key Facts

DeSantis and the Florida government are retaliating against Walt Disney World after the resort enacted a development agreement with the special district that oversees it—which essentially stripped the district of many of its powers—right before that special district’s board was replaced with DeSantis appointees.

The state legislature introduced legislation Tuesday that would overturn that development agreement, which means the special district and DeSantis’ appointees will be able to exert greater control over allowing construction on Disney’s land, as the current agreement gives Disney broad development powers and the company the exclusive right to approve the exteriors of any building within the special district.

The government intends to change rules so Walt Disney World’s monorail and theme park rides will be subject to state inspections, DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson said at a press conference Monday, as large theme parks in Florida now have their own inspection processes in place instead.

Simpson noted that means the state will “decide whether a ride can safely reopen” if someone is injured, giving the state more power over the operation of Disney’s rides.

The board now overseeing Disney’s special district could also take a slew of measures without the government’s help, with DeSantis floating measures including permanently prohibiting mask mandates on the special district’s land, reappraising the theme parks so they pay higher taxes, contracting with private utility companies versus providing services through the district, increasing pay for first responders at the district and “really leaning in hard against human trafficking.”

DeSantis also suggested the board could move to develop land within the district that Disney doesn’t own, throwing out ideas of what could possibly be developed there including a state park, another amusement park, or a state prison.

The state is looking into measures like imposing tolls on roads on Disney property and looking at taxes for the resort’s hotels, DeSantis previously suggested before Monday’s press conference, but he did not mention anything around those measures on Monday.

What To Watch For

The legislation dissolving the development agreement, which is a proposed amendment of existing Florida law on special districts, would take effect July 1 if enacted. The board of DeSantis appointees will next meet on Wednesday, though it’s still unclear what measures they could take at that meeting.

Chief Critic

Disney has not responded to DeSantis’ Monday press conference, but the company has previously defended its development agreement, saying on March 29, “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 in the Sunshine law.” Disney CEO Bob Iger also criticized DeSantis’ attacks on the company at a shareholder meeting April 3, saying the government’s efforts “sounds not just anti-business but it sounds anti-Florida.” Iger also noted the company is already the largest taxpayer in the state—paying $1.146 billion in state and local taxes in 2022—and directly employs 75,000 people in Central Florida, with plans to create an additional 13,000 jobs over the next 10 years.

What We Don’t Know

How far DeSantis’ appointees—made up of allies including right-wing activists and DeSantis donors—will go with their control over the special district, particularly if the development agreement is revoked. The special district overseeing Walt Disney World is not formally affiliated with the resort and does not have direct control over its operations—it functions more like a county government would—but critics have feared the board could use control it has over things like construction permits as leverage to force Disney to get rid of so-called “wokeness” in its theme parks or make other changes in line with DeSantis’ conservative policies. “That’s a combustible mix, it seems to me, to have people who are censors who are working as supervisors for an arm of the Walt Disney company,” political scientist Richard Foglesong, who authored the book Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando, told the Los Angeles Times.

Surprising Fact

Other major theme parks in Florida with more than 1,000 employees, like Universal Orlando and SeaWorld, are also now responsible for their own ride inspections and are not subject to state inspections. DeSantis suggested Monday that any changes the state makes would likely only impact Disney directly, however—by only targeting theme parks located within special districts—meaning Walt Disney World would have its ride safety operations under state control while its major competitors would not.


DeSantis’ attacks on Disney have drawn criticism from other Republicans, with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie telling Semafor Tuesday the episode makes him question if DeSantis is really a conservative and saying it “rightfully makes a lot of people question [DeSantis’] judgment and his maturity.” Former President Donald Trump said on Truth Social Tuesday that DeSantis, his primary rival for the 2024 presidential nomination, “is being absolutely destroyed by Disney,” calling the governor’s feud with the company “all so unnecessary, a political STUNT!”

Key Background

The Reedy Creek Improvement District has been overseeing the land containing Walt Disney World since the 1960s, functioning like a municipal government and handling infrastructure like road maintenance, waste collection and building permits. The special district has always been formally separate from Disney, but the company has previously been able to exert a significant level of control over it as its major landowner, able to elect the board members that control the special district and handpick other residents in the special district who have voting powers. Disney’s feud with DeSantis and Florida Republicans began last year when the company came out against Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, known by critics as “Don’t Say Gay.” DeSantis and GOP legislators retaliated by enacting legislation that dissolved Reedy Creek entirely. After that raised concerns about putting a tax burden on local residents, however, the legislature instead moved in February to just rename the special district and replace its board with governor-appointed members. The board then discovered in March the development agreement, which was passed at a public meeting before DeSantis took control of the board, setting off the governor’s ire and provoking a new round of punishments against the resort.

Further Reading

DeSantis Ramps Up Disney Feud With New Measures Against Theme Park (Forbes)

DeSantis Now Controls Disney World’s Special District—Here’s What That Means (Forbes)

DeSantis Calls For Investigation Into Disney World Special District After It Outsmarted His Takeover (Forbes)

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