A 'Caper Worthy of Scrooge McDuck': Behind Disney's Reedy Creek Maneuvers

Walt Disney Pictures for the US government, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written reams — or whatever is the online equivalent — about the last-minute covenants and development agreements that the outgoing board of Walt Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) passed on its way out the door. These agreements had the intent of tying the hands of the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD) board that the state of Florida has put in place to replace the RCID board.


On Wednesday, the CFTOD board met, and part of that meeting included a discussion of how the state of Florida gave Disney such a sweetheart deal for so long and how the RCID board engaged in shenanigans that operated outside the law.

Board Chairman Martin Garcia pointed out how it was long past time for the state to replace or do away with the RCID.

“In 1967, the tax bases in Orange and Osceola counties were rather insignificant. So the Reedy Creek Improvement Act seemed like a decent deal,” Garcia said. “In exchange for special privileges, Disney would construct its kingdom to draw tourists, spark industry, and generate jobs and revenue. But nobody — perhaps other than Disney itself — believed that the act would live in perpetuity.”

“Disney’s lobbying and marketing campaign succeeded for 55 years,” he added. “It succeeded for more than half a century, above all, because nobody in Tallahassee was willing to shine a light on the arrangement. Then Governor Ron DeSantis courageously called it out for betraying not only fair-market competition, but also the citizens of Florida. At this point, only Disney believes that the old Reedy Creek Improvement Act is a good deal for the Sunshine State.”


Related: Pop Some Popcorn: Florida Files FOIA Request for Info About Disney’s Reedy Creek Maneuvers

The board also heard a presentation from attorney and law professor David H. Thompson, who is one of the lawyers that the CFTOD hired to investigate what the RCID board did. Thompson began by explaining how Disney took advantage of the state’s generosity for five decades.

First, he reiterated Garcia’s points about Disney’s special treatment and stated that the company’s response to ending that treatment got us where we are this week.

“For over 50 years, Disney had enjoyed a sweetheart deal that exempted it from the type of government regulation that every other business in the state complies with,” he said. “The Florida Legislature and Governor DeSantis sought to end that special treatment. They were committed to having Disney treated the same as all other businesses in the state. Disney responded by engaging in an illegal, and indeed unconstitutional, effort to extend the life of its sweetheart deal.”

Then Thompson explained how the RCID board’s actions violated sunshine laws.

“Specifically, they failed to mail notice to the other property owners in the District,” he noted. “The obligation to make such a mailing is crystal clear under the law. And Disney’s failure dooms their entire effort to evade the will of the people of Florida.”


The agreements were riddled with procedural abuses and violations of state contract law. Thompson called out the board’s maneuvers as directly contravening HB9, the new state law that dismantled RCID and established CFTOD.

He concluded in the most colorful and eloquent way he could, declaring that “these contracts are unconscionable. They are completely one-sided. Disney takes governmental powers for itself for decades and offers the District nothing in return. The bottom line is that Disney engaged in a caper worthy of Scrooge McDuck to try to evade Florida law. Its efforts are illegal. And they will not stand.”

Retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Alan Lawson followed up with a series of slides that bolstered Thompson’s assertions, and you can see them below.

Slides from presentation to CFTOD Board by PJ Media on Scribd

The bottom line of all of this is that Disney broke the law by having the RCID board pass these agreements — and internal emails that the CFTOD attorneys received proved that Disney was in on the whole thing.

One email that the attorneys shared came from an attorney who served both Disney and the RCID board. The attorney helped draft the agreements, and he wrote, “My name is currently at the top of the document. That’s the development agreement as the drafter, and I’m comfortable having my name on it. But from an optics perspective, that is not ideal. And it would be better to have a non-Disney employee be the drafter.”


There’s more to come, and I’ll share it with you over the next couple of days.


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