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Gov. Ron Desantis’ hand-picked board tries a new way to wrestle power away from Disney World



Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appointees to Disney World’s governing board have launched a fresh salvo in the fight to control the resort, seeking to expand their authority after their Disney-controlled predecessors abdicated most powers to the company.

Supervisors of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District are floating a resolution saying the board has “superior authority” over all land development decisions for the 27,000 acres that make up Walt Disney World, including for two tiny Disney controlled cities in the district. The board is set to vote on the resolution next week.

The proposal comes two weeks after board members say their Disney-controlled predecessors pulled a fast one by stripping the new board of most powers before DeSantis’ hand-picked members could take their seats.

Five new supervisors were appointed by the Republican governor after the Florida Legislature overhauled Disney’s government in retaliation for the entertainment giant publicly opposing the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation barring school instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.

The proposed resolution is likely a starting point for future legal tussles between the new board and Disney, said Richard Foglesong, a Rollins College professor emeritus who wrote a definitive account of Disney World’s governance in his book, “Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando.”

“A key question will be whether a board created by the Legislature and appointed by the governor can rescind the constitutionally granted authority of democratically elected local governments,” Foglesong said.

In taking on Disney, DeSantis advanced his reputation as a culture warrior willing to battle political opponents and wield the power of state government to accomplish political goals. It’s a strategy he’s likely to follow through his expected 2024 run for the White House.

The new supervisors replaced a board controlled by Disney for the previous 55 years, which operated as the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Among its last acts in February was giving Disney control over design and construction at the theme park resort. Reedy Creek board members also prohibited their successors from using the name “Disney” or any symbols associated with the theme park without the company’s permission, and barred the new board from using the likeness of Mickey Mouse, other Disney characters or other intellectual property.

An email seeking comment from Disney was sent on Wednesday.

Experts said the latest proposed resolution won’t impact the previous board’s agreement with Disney.

“This is about the district controlled by the governor’s appointees passing a law that its land development rules prevail over the rules of the cities, which are still controlled by popular vote (made up entirely of Disney voters),” Jacob Schumer, an Orlando attorney specializing in local government and land use, said in an email.

Two tiny cities fall within the Disney district. According to the 2020 census, Bay Lake had 29 residents and Lake Buena Vista had 24. The two municipalities were formed to support the legal framework of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which was established by the Florida Legislature in 1967.

The cities have elected city councils and mayors who contract with local law enforcement for police services at Disney World, and could be used to assert the company’s autonomy over the resort. The cities’ residents are employees, former employees or others with close ties to Disney.

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