The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD) released the report on Monday, revealing how Disney managed to gain “near-total governing authority” over the district since 1967.
The report states, “That authority was so unchecked that Disney attained the power to, among other exceptional privileges, create and direct not just its own fire and police departments, but also, if it chose, construct a nuclear power plant.”
This authority was granted under legislation signed by then-Florida Governor Claude R. Kirk Jr., which proposed the Reedy Creek Improvement District as an experimental community blending residential and commercial areas, along with the Walt Disney World theme park.
However, the city initially envisioned by Walt Disney before his death “never came to pass, and to this day, Disney’s special district is essentially void of individual residents,” the auditors noted.
They further revealed that Disney was advised by consultants to “limit the scope of democracy” within the district, thereby freeing the company from potential impediments to change, such as elected political officials.
The auditors wrote, “Disney had wholly outmaneuvered the legislature and pulled off an incredible act. It had established an extra-constitutional governing authority—‘an experimental absolute monarchy’—within the borders of the State of Florida, and, accordingly, the United States—one that strikingly resembled, without exaggeration, a kingdom of yore.”
In response to the report, a Disney spokesperson told The Post, “This report is an exercise in revisionist history. It is neither objective nor credible, and only seeks to advance CFTOD’s interests in its wasteful litigation that could derail investment within the district.” The spokesperson further criticized the CFTOD board for being appointed by the governor to punish Disney for exercising its Constitutional right to free speech.
The auditors described Disney's special district as a “step stool” from which the company expanded to develop additional parks in Orange County and Osceola County, Florida, eventually becoming an $82.7 billion media empire.
The report also noted that “as of November 2023, institutional investors attribute over 85[%] of Disney’s current stock-market value to its theme-park and consumer-products related businesses.”
Earlier this year, Governor DeSantis signed a law dissolving the district’s former board and installing a new five-person panel, citing that the district had been governed in a way “tantamount to corporate welfare,” according to the audit.
This included “showering gifts and lavish spending” on board members and district employees, creating the impression that these employees worked to achieve the interests of Disney, not of the District or other property owners.
The audit revealed that district board members, other employees, and their families indulged in around $2 million worth of resort season passes and other perks in recent years, along with discounted Disney cruises, merchandise, food, and beverages.
In response to the governor’s changes, former board members attempted to push through last-minute district agreements for municipal services before their departure. Disney subsequently sued Governor DeSantis in April to try and keep those deals in force. One of these agreements would have extended for 100 years, the report revealed.
Meanwhile, the DeSantis-appointed board filed a lawsuit against Disney for having pushed the “backroom” agreements before the district changed hands. When asked about the legal battle in August, DeSantis, a candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, advised Disney to “go back to what [it] did well.”
Disney has previously spoken out against DeSantis’ Parental Rights in Education law, which banned classroom instruction about gender identity or sexual orientation before fourth grade. Critics, including Disney CEO Bob Iger, have dubbed it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, arguing it would threaten LGBTQ youth.
The Central Florida Tourism District has also awarded millions of dollars’ worth of contracts to local vendors as part of a new procurement policy to correct the anti-competitive actions of their predecessors. One case highlighted in the report showed that Reedy Creek contracted Disney for a $7.7 million road construction project involving a golf course owned by the media company.
According to William Jennings, a forensic accountant who provided expert testimony for the report, “[Y]et no evidence existed to support any economic analysis of that price or a comparison between the cost of entering the agreement as opposed to going through a condemnation proceeding.”
Donald J. Kochan, a law professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School and one of the auditors, stated that other legislative proposals passed in the district used “lofty rhetoric that disguised the underlying wealth transfer benefitting Disney.”
As of now, Governor DeSantis is currently polling in a distant second-place in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, trailing behind frontrunner and former President Donald Trump by 47 percentage points, according to the RealClearPolitics average.