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Little Government

What in the World?
A weekly peek at Walt Disney World

Monday, January 08, 2007

We can all agree that Walt Disney World is an amazing and special place, and has been since the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971. What is not widely known, however, is how the Walt Disney Company was able to build and how it maintains the 25,000 acres that make up Walt Disney World. The answer, in short, is that the Walt Disney Company runs its own government.

When Walt Disney and the many Disney-owned subsidiaries bought the land that currently comprises Walt Disney World, it was mucky, partially submerged swamp land. One of the big engineering feats required before any construction was to be attempted was to dredge and drain the water from the building sites. To make the daunting task easier, the Walt Disney Company petitioned the State of Florida to create a governmental entity that could exercise its own powers “to construct, complete, operate, maintain, repair, and replace any and all works and improvements necessary” without having to apply for the necessary permits and entitlements from local governments in Orange County and/or Osceola County.

In 1966 the State of Florida founded (in accordance with chapter 298 of the Florida Statutes) what was known as the Reedy Creek Drainage District. The governing body of the District, known as the Board of Supervisors was given statutorily defined powers to help the Walt Disney Company successfully dredge and drain the future home of Walt Disney World. These powers included the power to assess and collect fees, the power to implement whatever policy to successful drain the property, and even the power of eminent domain (the ability to condemn and purchase other people’s property for use by the Drainage District). However, the construction of Walt Disney World was more than just draining and clearing swamp land. It required a lot planning, construction, and oversight.

The Reedy Creek Drainage District was just the beginning. To assure that Walt’s vision of the “Florida Project” would remain true, the Walt Disney Company wanted an increase in authority and independence from nearby local governments. On May 12, 1967, with support from both the Florida State Legislature and Governor Claude R. Kirk, Jr., the Reedy Creek Improvement District was created with the passage of Chapter 67-764. The upgrade was significant. The enabling legislation gave the RCID many of the responsibilities of a city or county, including emergency services, water control, public utilities, land use, building codes and financial responsibility for the issuance of general obligation and revenue bonds. Specifically, section 23(1) provided the five-member Board of Supervisors with broad powers “to guide and accomplish the coordinated, balanced and harmonious development of the District in accordance with existing and future needs.” Moreover, in section 23(2), the Legislature declared that, “[t]he jurisdiction and powers of the Board of Supervisors provided for herein shall be exclusive of any law now or hereafter enacted providing for land use regulation, zoning or building codes, by the State of Florida or any agency or authority of the State and the provisions of any such law shall not be applicable within the territorial limits of the District.”

The special status given to the Reedy Creek Improvement District even laid the foundation of the building of EPCOT Center in the late 1970’s. In 1977, the Florida Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Conservation asked Florida Attorney General Robert Shevin if a Florida State law that required developments of regional impact to submit to a regulatory process applied to developments within the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The Senate Committee wanted clarification because EPCOT Center was such an ambitious project. According to Shevin in a 1977 Attorney General Opinion paper, the law did not apply to developments within the District. He determined that when Chapter 67-764 was enacted in 1967, the Legislature intended the RCID to be exempt from state land use regulation laws “now or hereafter enacted.” Moreover, the department that administered the regional impact law, the Division of State Planning, Department of Administration, also exempted the RCID from the law in 1976 by memorandum. Shevin concluded his opinion by stating, “Absent a judicial or legislative declaration to the contrary, this administrative determination is persuasive and binding.” Even state law did not apply to developments in the District.

Today, the Reedy Creek Improvement District is responsible to the owners of land within the District and the public “to provide for surface water control and drainage, utilities and mosquito control; roads and bridges; land use regulation and planning; fire protection; emergency medical services; environmental services; data collection and evaluation; building and other construction codes enforcement and inspections; and interface with local, regional, state and federal regulatory agencies.” Below are pictures taken at a RCID fire station across the street from the Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District is also a special taxing district and derives its income from taxes and fees imposed within its boundaries. A vast majority of property taxes are paid to the RCID by the Walt Disney World Company. Fees are generated from use of utilities that were established and are run by the RCID. These utilities include “wastewater collection and treatment system, a reclaimed water system, an electric generation and distribution system, a solid waste collection and transfer system, a solid waste recycling collections and disposal system, a potable water system, a natural gas distribution system and a high temperature hot water and a chilled water system.”

In many ways the RCID is like any other local government: it provides important services like fire protection and utilities and is run by a Board of Supervisors. However, there is one big difference that many opponents and critics will quickly point out; the supervisors on the Board are all elected by the Walt Disney Company. The RCID website states that, “The District is governed by a Board of Supervisors of five members. The Supervisors hold office for staggered terms of four years each. Elections of Supervisors are held every two years at the annual meeting of the landowners of the District, at which two or three Supervisors, as the case may be, are elected.” The Walt Disney Company owns the vast majority (if not all) of the land within the 38.6 square miles the District is comprised of, and can elect whomever it wishes. In short, the Walt Disney Company runs its own government, something that is not found anywhere else in the country.

Whether or not you agree with the authority and power the District has, there is no question that it has been an important part of making Walt Disney World what it is today. As Walt himself said, “Here in Florida, we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland...the blessing of size. There's enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.” And perhaps without an entire government to back it up, the Walt Disney Company could never have realized the magical and special place that we all know as Walt Disney World.

Agree with what I said? Disagree? Have a story to share sparked by this column? Share your own idea by posting a comment below.