When Walt Disney finished Disneyland and the park became a major tourist destination, he found himself wishing he had bought more land. Walt didn’t like how civilization encroached on his creation, so when he started buying swamps in Florida, he made sure to buy plenty of them. Disney World is twice the size of Manhattan Island, but it’s not just size that makes Disney World unique among vacation destinations, it’s the fact that the resort is, in many ways, its own city.
Walt Disney World is in a part of Florida known as Reedy Creek Improvement District, which encompasses Walt Disney World. Although they are technically two different entities, they exist in the same space as Reedy Creek was created specifically for Disney World by the State of Florida. It’s been that way from the start, though now some state lawmakers are suggesting it might be time to end Reedy Creek, which would be a massive move that would change the face of Walt Disney World.
Walt Disney and Epcot
Walt’s original plans for Disney World involved much more than wanting to build a theme park. Walt Disney wanted to build a real city; an experimental prototype community of tomorrow, to be exact. To do this, Walt was going to need more than land. If Disney World was just a business, then Walt would have to follow the rules of cities, counties, and declare that the business existed within. Private companies don’t just build cities the way they want.
That meant Disney World had to be something else. Walt knew what he wanted Epcot to be and he knew that if he had to rely on or be answerable to other governments, he might not be able to bring Epcot to life the way he wanted. Walt lobbied the Florida government to give the company more power over this land than it otherwise would have, and at the time the state was more than happy to make Walt Disney happy.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District
In 1967, the Florida Legislature passed the Reedy Creek Improvement Act, which created the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Between votes in the Florida House and Senate, there was only one vote against the creation of the district. This new district covered the territory that made up Disney World and gave Disney almost complete autonomy over the territory that would become Walt Disney World.
A five-person Board of Supervisors oversees the Reedy Creek Improvement District. They are employees of The Walt Disney Company and they, and the people who vote them, are among the few people who actually live within the boundaries of Disney World.
The Improvement District means that Disney World is largely responsible for its own municipal services. It has its own police and fire departments, it runs its own garbage collection services, and it runs its own roads. The Reedy Creek Improvement District obtains the funds to pay for these services by taxing property owners within the district, i.e. Disney.
This is potentially beneficial to the state of Florida in several ways. If Disney World just existed in Orange and Osceola counties, where Reedy Creek is, then things like garbage collection and fire departments would be handled by the existing organizations in the counties that handle those things. Their financing would be borne by the taxpayers of the entire county. Right now, an Orlando resident isn’t seeing his tax money go to fixing the roads at Disney World, Reedy Creek is taking care of that.
Of course, Walt Disney World also receives very good benefits from this setup. Reedy Creed has its own building codes, the Epcot codes, and so Disney can basically build what it wants, where it wants, and how it wants. Disney is not subject to any city or county rules in this regard.
Epcot was never built, of cours. Walt died before the Reedy Creek Improvement District was even established, and while Disney is testing the waters of building residential communities again, it seems unlikely that something like this will ever happen. So Reedy Creek isn’t strictly necessary, but at the same time it’s worked pretty well that way for over 50 years. Disney has more freedom than you might expect from a theme park resort, but it also largely takes care of itself in a way that other theme park resorts don’t. don’t need to do.
The end of Reedy Creek?
Today, The Walt Disney Company has found itself in a political battle, and that battle now includes the Reedy Creek Improvement District. While many thought the company, which is Florida’s largest single-site employer, was slow to respond, it has finally spoken out against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The bill has now been signed into law, but Republicans who support the bill apparently don’t like that Disney chose to speak out, so now they’re threatening to ending Reedy Creek Improvement District.
It’s hard to tell at this point how serious these politicians are about ending Reedy Creek, or what the general support for such a move is. However, this would have massive repercussions for Disney World and Central Florida as a whole.
As mentioned above, rather than Disney paying itself taxes, through Reedy Creek, to manage municipal necessities, if Reedy Creek was no more, Disney would pay those taxes to the counties in which it resides, and the counties would then be responsible for Disney management. World, as well as the rest of the region. There are probably people in Florida who are more than happy not to have their tax dollars used to fix potholes outside the transportation and ticketing hub.
Among the courts, the biggest change would be to how Disney World handles its own affairs. Without the Reedy Creek Improvement District, Disney’s ability to govern itself would come to an end. This would mean that if Disney wanted to build another resort hotel or even a fifth gate, it would have to deal with a lot more government bureaucracy and pay a lot more fees and taxes.
While it might not seem that important who Disney pays money to, this change has the potential to be a game-changer. Disney could drastically reduce, or even completely halt, its investments in Disney World. In the past we have seen Disney just isn’t building a hotel at Disneyland Resort when the company and the city of Anaheim couldn’t come to a deal Disney liked.
Florida went along with this whole plan in the first place because the benefit was important to the state. Disney World meant a huge boost to the economy, as Orlando was not a massive tourist destination until Disney came along. Every time Disney builds a new hotel tower, it means jobs and revenue for the state. If this work stops, so does the flow of money to the people and government in Florida
There’s no reason to believe we couldn’t see something similar to the Disneyland hotel situation happening here. Disney is currently considering move most of Walt Disney Imagineering to Florida, but if Disney decides to slow development of the Florida resort, we could see that plan halted before it really begins. Disney might just plan to spend its efforts elsewhere if it’s decided that Florida has become too expensive.
What the future holds is unclear, and it could all turn out to be much ado about nothing, but the dissolution of the Reedy Creek Improvement District would be a big deal if that were to happen. There has never been a governing body like this, and whether it dies now or not, there probably never will be again.