Desantis Gains Leverage Over Disney District

Desantis chooses leadership for Disney World’s new special district

photograph courtesy of

Hayden Dennis (he/him), Staff Writer

On February 27th, 2023, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida approved Florida House Bill 9-B, stripping Disney World of their control of the special economic zone in which they operate and placing it under the control of a board of 5 members. This severely hinders Disney World’s autonomy and may affect how well they will be able to operate certain aspects of Disney World. 

This comes after a feud between Governor DeSantis and Disney in 2022 over the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill (Parental Rights in Education Bill), when Disney called for the bill to be struck down. DeSantis responded to Disney by saying “I think they crossed a line” and “We’re going to make sure we’re fighting back when people are threatening our parents and threatening our kids.”

What is being changed/removed?

Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando has been operating within the Reedy Creek Improvement District since 1967. Reedy Creek began as a joint venture between the Florida Legislature and Disney to create a special taxing district (Reedy Creek) which would give Disney the same authority as a country government, allowing them to speed up construction on Disney World.

With the signing of Bill 9-B, the district will be renamed, but is going to be renamed to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, led by 5 board members appointed by the governor and approved by the state senate. Control over this district has not been fully handed over to the state government, rather it will be headed by members chosen by the government, allowing DeSantis to put in his sympathizers. This means whoever is in power in the state has the ability to appoint whoever they see fit to this board, giving them some leverage of Disney World as compared to before.

Why did Florida decide against a full government takeover?

Disney World is situated between two separate counties, Orange and Osceola. Disney World is currently carrying a debt of over $1 billion in bond debt, and has an operating cost of about $100 million a year. If the state were to have fully stripped the taxing district, this debt and some operating costs would fall on the tax payers in the two counties. It was estimated that a full government takeover would have shot property taxes up by about 20%-25% to compensate. This was the original plan, but was shot down due to how badly this would’ve hurt Orange and Osceola county. 

How will this change how Disney World operates?

The new board of directors does not have full control over Disney World; rather, the new board is just taking over for Reedy Creek. The biggest difference is that the governor gets to appoint the members of said board. The other main change is that the district will now be required  to report budget and finances to the state, will be restricted from building things such as an airport or nuclear power plant (though these were never really an idea), and Disney will not be able to expand its boundaries without approval from the state government. 

Who are the new board members?

  • Martin Garcia, lawyer from Tampa with a history of running an equity investment firm and has worked on a board at NASDAQ and 3 other NYC stock exchange companies
  • Bridget Ziegler, school board member from Sarasota county and co-founder of ‘Moms for Liberty’
  • Brian Aungst Jr., attorney from Clearwater who works with Macfarlane Ferguson and McMullen
  • Michael A. Sasso, lawyer from Orlando who works with election law and business & construction litigations
  • Ron Peri, Chairman of The Gathering USA from Orlando

All of these board members have been selected by Governor DeSantis, though they have yet to take their positions, and are waiting to be confirmed by the Florida Senate.

Why were these board members appointed?

All of these new appointees have ties to the Republican Party, and are DeSantis loyalists who are sympathetic to his cause. Martin Garcia donated $50,000 to DeSantis in 2022. Ziegler helped draft the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill, co-founded the far-right non profit ‘Moms for Liberty,’ and is currently married to Christian Ziegler, the head of the Florida Republican Party. Brian Aungst Jr. and Michael Sasso are both prominent Republicans with past ties to DeSantis, and Ron Peri is the founder and CEO of The Gathering USA, a ministry that supports Christian nationalism.

How is Disney Responding to this?

Disney has declined media requests from many different outlets, and have informed them that they will not be taking any action against the change of leadership in the district. However, this doesn’t mean there will be new tensions between the governor and Disney and the relationship will likely be sour towards the new leadership.