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'Married to the Mouse' author says DeSantis-Disney dispute likely to end in 'therapy,' not 'divorce'

Richard Foglesong, left, an expert on Walt Disney World in Orlando, spoke with WMFE News reporter Joe Byrnes.
Richard Foglesong, left, an expert on Walt Disney World in Orlando, spoke with WMFE News reporter Joe Byrnes.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature have revoked Walt Disney World's unique self-governing district known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, effective June of next year.

That came after Disney's CEO spoke against a new law that limits talk of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools.

Retired Rollins College professor Richard Foglesong, author of "Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando," discussed the situation with WMFE.

A mighty mouse

Foglesong said Walt Disney World has been huge for Orlando. It put the city on the map.

"It's the economic engine of Central Florida. And a lot of people depend upon Disney World for their living and I'm not just talking to people who work in the park. ... And Reedy Creek Improvement District, that is the Disney private government that I call a Vatican with mouse ears, was essential for Disney coming here. When they came, they said that they needed these powers or they would not come because they did not want to depend upon a local or county government for public services. And they didn't want to be regulated by a government that they didn't control. ... They wanted their own kingdom in the form of a government."

Reedy Creek's $1 billion in bonded debt

We don't have an answer yet from state government, specifically from Gov. DeSantis, about how this bonded indebtedness is going to get paid off, by whom and what timetable. And there are consequences here, consequences for the bond buyers, the bond holders, consequences for Orange County. One reading of state law says that if the powers are taken away from Reedy Creek, then they default to county government. There might be consequences for the governor if he's embarrassed in the end because there are loose ends here and they have to go back and fix something or maybe not be able to actually execute this dissolution of the powers of the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

Dire consequences

Foglesong thinks that, in the end, not much will change, because of the dire consequences of a "divorce."

"I have referred in my book "Married to the Mouse" to the powers of the Reedy Creek Improvement District as a prenuptial agreement. ... [T]he Disney company wanted to preserve its power and so they kind of put a timebomb, you might say, in those powers, making it very difficult for the state to ever take those powers away. And I think we see that now with the imbroglio over what to do about the bonded indebtedness.

"In the last chapter of my book, it's titled 'Therapy.' The chapters of the book correspond with the stages of a marriage, and I've been asked over the years, Why isn't the last chapter 'Divorce'? And my answer -- maybe kind of flip sometimes -- was, Well, there's too many children. Too many people depend upon Disney's being here and Disney having those powers, and I still think that's true.

"I don't think there's going to be a divorce. I think rather we're going to have some kind of therapy."

A watershed moment?

Foglesong wonders if this dispute could be a "watershed moment" for the country history of gay rights.

"I think that watching the model of the Disney company speaking back to Gov. DeSantis, there may be other major corporations that will follow suit in this state, in other states. There may be some major corporations who will publicly announce that they're not coming to Florida, that they don't want to invest here because of the stance taken by the governor in the state Legislature."

Joe Byrnes came to WMFE/WMFV from the Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun, where he worked as a reporter and editor for several years. Joe graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and turned to journalism after teaching. He enjoys freshwater fishing and family gatherings.
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