DeSantis' new Disney World board hints at future controversy
The first meeting of the new board of Walt Disney World’s government — overhauled by sweeping legislation signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis as punishment for Disney publicly challenging Florida's so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill — dealt with the rote affairs any other municipal government would handle: calls for better firefighter equipment, lessons on public records requests and bond ratings.
But the five board members appointed by DeSantis hinted Wednesday at future controversial actions they may take, including prohibiting COVID-19 restrictions at Disney World and recommending the elimination of two cities that were created after the Florida Legislature in 1967 approved the theme park resort's self-governance.
The board also approved hiring the same law firm that advised the governor's office in making changes to the governing district to help interpret the new legislation.
For the most part, the new board members listened in a hotel ballroom outside Disney World as members of the public and workers from the district's departments explained what they do.
Martin Garcia, the board's new chair, said the major distinction between the old board controlled by Disney and the new one appointed by DeSantis will be a broader constituency encompassing more than just a single company, instead also representing workers and residents of surrounding communities.
“You didn’t elect us, but the people of Florida elected a governor who appointed us,” Garcia said. “I see there will be much broader representation.”
The other new board members for what has been rechristened the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District included Bridget Ziegler, a conservative school board member and wife of the Florida Republican party chairman Christian Ziegler; Brian Aungst Jr., an attorney and son of a former two-term Republican mayor of Clearwater; Mike Sasso, an attorney; and Ron Peri, head of The Gathering USA ministry.
They replaced a board that had been controlled by Disney during the previous 55 years that the government operated as the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
The new name will require a new logo to replace the old one that's on 123 vehicles, 300 trash cans and 1,000 manhole covers, district administrator John Classe told board members.
The takeover of the Disney district by DeSantis and the Florida Legislature began last year when the entertainment giant, facing intense pressure, publicly opposed “Don’t Say Gay,” which bars instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, as well as lessons deemed not age-appropriate.
DeSantis moved quickly to penalize the company, directing lawmakers in the GOP-dominated Legislature to dissolve Disney’s self-governing district during a special legislative session, beginning a closely watched restructuring process.
In taking on Disney, DeSantis furthered his reputation as a culture warrior willing to battle perceived political enemies and wield the power of state government to accomplish political goals, a strategy that is expected to continue ahead of his potential White House run.
After the meeting, Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences & Products, said in a statement that he was hopeful the new board would continue to maintain “the highest standards" for the resort's infrastructure, set by its predecessor, and support ongoing growth at the resort.
During public comments at Wednesday's meeting, the leader of the union for the district’s firefighters, which had clashed with the previous board, welcomed the new members, calling the new board “a fresh start.” Jon Shirey urged the new board to devote resources to purchasing new fire trucks, improving pay and increasing staff, saying the 32 firefighters who are on duty each day is just two more than it was in 1989.
"It’s safe to say that Disney has grown exponentially,” Shirey said.