In The End, Disney’s Florida Dream Succumbed To Its Democracy Problem

It was bound to happen, sooner or later. On Monday, the Walt Disney Co.’s corporate privilege in Florida finally succumbed to its Democracy Problem.

Specifically, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation that stripped Disney of its highly unusual control over a special entity, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, that had the power to tax, spend, plan, zone and generally govern the acreage surrounding Disney’s Florida theme parks.

In narrow terms, the move stemmed from a dispute over Disney’s stance over a Florida parental rights law, branded “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents, that limits sex-and-gender education to younger children.

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But in truth, the revocation was a long overdue rupture in a corporate/political structure that concealed a hidden flaw.  Reedy Creek was a Utopian construct, endowed with powers—including the right to generate nuclear power, if needed—that were granted 55 years ago in the expectation that successors to company founder Walt Disney would fulfill his plan to build a techno-based paradise, a truly functional Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Introducing EPCOT, Florida’s then-governor, Haydon Burns, called it “the greatest single announcement in the history of the state.”

Of course, things didn’t quite work as planned.

By the time I got a close look at the Reedy Creek apparatus, as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in 1985, the Disney company, by now under chief executive Michael Eisner, had already discovered a structural fault that would never be fixed. Eisner and his fellow executives called it the “one man, one vote” problem.

Essentially, Reedy Creek, which embraced most of the 28,000 acres owned by Disney in Central Florida, was a corporate dictatorship. When I visited, voting control of the district was vested in about 50 full-time residents, almost all employees who had been deeded small plots, allowing them to participate in a faux democracy that was entirely controlled by the company.

As conceived by Walt, political control was a sine qua non if Imagineers were to design a perfect world. Technocrats would create order. But let the inhabitants vote too freely, and things would inevitably get messy–or worse, fall apart. “Walt wasn’t against people voting,” explained Eisner. “He just didn’t want them hanging their dirty laundry out.”

As Disney developed its land with theme parks and resorts, the Democracy Problem was never fully resolved. Permanent residents were permitted in pockets like the Golden Oak development and the planned community of Celebration, with careful concessions to democratic involvement. But once-anticipated mass residential development, never mind Walt’s Utopia, with a large population living the dream, never materialized.

Instead, Disney remained an undigested lump in Florida’s body politic. It enjoyed special powers through Reedy Creek. But those powers would be diluted if real-life Floridians were permitted to inhabit the district. And, as we learned this week, they would be lost if Disney tried to push its ideals on elected representatives in the rest of the state.

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