The Walt Disney World Resort’s aura of childhood wonder and joy is loved by Americans young and old alike. Surrounded by a network of highways in the swamps of central Florida, Disney World’s vast network of theme parks, water parks, hotels, golf courses, shopping districts, and entertainment complexes is itself an constitutes one world of It is the self-proclaimed “Most Magical Place on Earth”.
Yet, in April 2022, even the cherished Disney brand found itself caught in a troubling knot in the culture wars of Florida. In March, repressive laws banned any discussion of gender or sexual orientation through the third grade of elementary school. Governor Ron DeSantis immediately went on the offensive, surprising many with his hostility to large corporations previously thought to be untouchable.
As a conservative in the big government, DeSantis did not hesitate to use the power of the government to punish his enemies. Business he is a leader and even a company. For this battle, he chose a unique weapon. It is the elimination of the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), a special tax district that has been the foundation of Disney World’s growth. RCID is a powerful tool that combines Disney’s corporate authority with city-state-like jurisdictions. Marry a mouse, calling it “a sort of Vatican with mouse ears.” It has independent powers to tax, spend, issue bonds and develop without being bound by state or county regulations. It also has the power to distribute alcohol under its own authority, police the police with private security forces protected from the Public Records Act, and build its own airports and nuclear power plants, although so far it has been used Not. This blend of public power and corporate profit motives is the nemesis of the socialist left, but is instead under attack from one of the Republican Party’s rising stars.
On April 21, DeSantis signed a bill dissolving RCID. To some, the move seems half-hearted. It quickly became clear that if RCID were dismantled, nearly $1 billion in debt could be passed on to Orange and Osceola counties, raising county taxes to unbearable levels. Experts opined that he might settle for winning a few trophies. Perhaps get rid of Disney’s nuclear powers while keeping RCID’s basic operations intact. But he may be hungry for more. If so, this feud isn’t over yet. DeSantis is a smart guy and likely knows the history of Disney’s relationship with Florida.
building disney world
When Disney came to Orlando in the mid-1960s, the central Florida economy was still feeling the pain when the orange harvest froze. Walt Disney was looking to the East Coast market for his Disneyland concept. Located at the intersection of two major interstates and without competing ocean views, Orlando had potential. Disney himself read a lot of literature on urban planning and was troubled by the urban crisis of the time. He envisioned how his theme park could become a city in its own right, a fully self-contained, immersive environment for visitors, but when creating his original Disneyland, Anaheim I was frustrated at how the circumstances of my return thwarted that vision. Vulgar and uncoordinated tourist traps that spoiled his park’s aura, and local government regulations were also annoying. Southwest of Orlando, a Disney agent quietly bought an undeveloped piece of land in a wetland of about 27,000 acres (twice his land area in Manhattan) at a bargain. Disney was able to set up a buffer zone around the park, a variation on the “green belt” concept that Walt read, to isolate it from anything that could happen outside the park.
In addition to a physical buffer, he also needed a regulatory environment that would ensure that his company’s sphere of action was not restricted by public representatives, or the general public. Disney lawyers tap into existing ideas for special tax districts, a territorial agency that has been widely used by states to avoid debt ceilings and insulate major infrastructure projects from public pressure since the Great Depression. Did. Disney had already planned to incorporate a drainage basin to clear the swamp that would become Disney World. His governing power was distributed by area, not by population. However, since only incorporated cities with popularly-elected governments could regulate building and land use, legal experts believe that one or more traditional municipalities adjoin Reedy Creek. , advocated a subordinate two-tier governance structure.RCID was introduced in his 1967.
Why did legislators vote for Disney’s plan? Why go beyond bond issuance and regulatory control? And where did airports and nuclear power plants come from?
They required Walt’s famous imagination and American credibility with the power of big business. A few weeks before his untimely death in 1966, Walt shot a video outlining his plans for a future city called EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). EPCOT will be an urban laboratory for new technologies, production techniques, and living facilities that “never complete, but constantly introduce, test, and demonstrate new materials and systems.” It was to be “a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.”
Like Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, EPCOT will be built on a radial plan with apartments and a business center surrounded by greenbelts all connected by a monorail and underground tunnel system. Still, a good portion of its evolution could not have been planned. That’s why I needed the conscientious guidance of one company. Florida legislators liked the idea of what an experimental corporate city could do for residents. But whatever plans Walt had before he died, it would be a tourist city, not a city where residents had the right to vote. In a legal team memo cited by Foglesong, Walt rescinded all uses of “permanent resident” and replaced it with “temporary resident/tourist.” Democracy is no obstacle to corporate power.
It may have come into being under false pretenses, and local Florida officials, especially planners, became frustrated with its broad mandate, but by most standards denied that RCID had succeeded. No. Disney World transformed the economy of central Florida, and is now revitalizing a thriving ecosystem of tourist destinations. It also had a great influence on city planners. American shopping mall innovator James Rouse had already called Disneyland “America’s finest urban design.” He designed Faneuil Hall and other “festival marketplaces” in Boston, providing a template for reinventing post-industrial city centers as eye-catching consumer paradise for tourists. Disney’s His World also earned praise from architect Peter Blake when it burst out in 1972. new york magazine An article about Disney’s “amazingly successful” theme parks called them “the only new town of significance built in the country since World War II.” and selected parts of other districts) to Walt Disney Productions.” When he speculated about what Disney could do to make his square “fun,” according to The Times, he partly sowed the seeds of what was to come decades later.
Despite its influence on the future of the city and the importance of Florida, Disney was not invincible. By the mid-1980s, Florida’s political leanings had shifted from growth boosterism to managed growth. Disney’s expansion contributed to its share of externalized social problems. Traffic to and from Disney World blocked nearby roads, and low-wage workers had welfare needs vastly different in scale than sleepy nearby counties. When it passed the Growth Management Plan, RCID was protected by a strong grandfather clause and continued to grow without having to comply with these rules. Nevertheless, the government’s opponents have found a way to chip away at Disney’s regulatory fortress by exploiting its main weakness: its sensitivity to public opinion. Disney’s power play had to be kept out of the public eye so that Mickey and Goofy were never seen “out of their minds.”
In 1989, Florida officials lobbied Disney to avert a protracted public battle by agreeing to a $13 million traffic relief fee. This was a fraction of what they would have owed without RCID, but it shows that Disney was willing to negotiate to give up some of their privileges, given the right pressure. Notably, the agreement also included a seven-year commitment by Orange County not to challenge the constitutionality of the RCID Charter. Lawyers began poring over the charter’s “vulnerabilities,” wondering whether the differences between Disney (a corporation) and his RCID (a public entity) were not carefully maintained to withstand legal challenge. I was.
If RCID has not been challenged since the end of its moratorium, it may be because Disney and its surrounding communities are deeply interdependent. If Disney World goes into recession, Central Florida’s economy will be hit hard. When Disney World faces persistent local hostility or attempts to move across state lines, Disney’s corporate image is similarly seriously damaged. It represents a large fixed investment over a period of years. To continue to contribute significantly to Disney’s corporate profit margins, it must find a solid foundation for its relationship with Florida.
Ron DeSantis and his attorneys have a solid understanding of Disney’s history and have taken the time to consider their options. There is a six-month period for negotiation. DeSantis has a choice on the table if he chooses to continue the fight. By forcing Disney to seek to reestablish RCID, it effectively erased the district seniority advantage that had allowed it to circumvent Florida’s recent review process and growth management regulations. If they want to revive it, they’ll have to negotiate. (If he had a different politics, he could even demand large donations for affordable housing. Florida, you play by his rules. I wonder if he will carry this same attitude into his campaign, and possibly the White House.
Avi Garelick is an urban researcher and writer based in New York.