In Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ongoing “war on woke,” Walt Disney World has been a consistent thorn in the governor’s side. On Mar. 28, 2022, Disney made a public statement explaining that “Florida’s HB 1557, also known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, should never have passed and should never have been signed into law,” instantly making the company public enemy number one for the Florida governor. DeSantis has since then made it a mission to enact revenge on Disney—specifically on its special tax district, the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID).
The RCID is a tax district which encompasses the entire Walt Disney World property between Orange and Osceola Counties and is governed by five members on a Board of Supervisors, appointed by the company. But on Feb. 27 Gov. DeSantis signed a bill that completely replaced the old Board of Supervisors with a new line of board members hand-picked by the Governor——including one Bridget Ziegler, chair of the Sarasota County School Board and a co-founder of the group Moms for Liberty. None of the new board members’ terms have expiration dates. Additionally, under the new legislation, RCID has been officially renamed to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.
RCID was established in 1967 due to the fact that neither Orange nor Osceola County had the means to provide for the Walt Disney World property. The best solution for all three parties was for the Florida legislature to allow Disney, along with a Board of Supervisors the company appointed, to take care of its own land, facilities and infrastructure.
Most notably, this put Disney within its own special tax district, which allows for the RCID government to collect taxes from the separate landowners—mainly Disney—and use those taxes to provide public services common to any municipality: firefighters, medical services, power, water and law enforcement among others. RCID also maintains all public roadways and bridges within the area, as well as the unique EPCOT Building Code which provides regulations for amusement and thrill attractions. The RCID website describes the district’s purpose as, “to support and administer certain aspects of the economic development and tourism within district boundaries.”
But now, since the Florida legislature has decided to repeal Disney’s governing status and appoint a whole new board, things might start looking different in the Reedy Creek area. The new Board of Supervisors include Martin Garcia, Michael Sasso, Brian Aungst, Jr., Ron Peri and Ziegler.
Martin Garcia, a Tampa based attorney, will serve as the new board chair. According to CNN and investigative journalist Jason Garcia, Chair Garcia’s private investment firm, Pinehill Capital, allegedly donated $50,000 to DeSantis’ 2022 reelection campaign.
Chair Garcia was also an informant for DeSantis’ office when they were looking for information on the former Tampa State Attorney Andrew Warren.
“I see our constituency group as everybody who works and plays in the district, those citizens that live around the district and, frankly, all the citizens of the state of Florida,” Garcia said during the board’s first meeting on Mar. 8.
Micheal Sasso is an attorney and managing partner at Sasso and Sasso. DeSantis has previously appointed Sasso to serve on the Judicial Nominating Commission for Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit and Florida’s Public Employee Relations Commission.
Brian Aungst, Jr. is an attorney and shareholder at the law firm of Macfarlane Ferguson and McMullen, P.A. in Clearwater. Aungst has also served as the chair of the Pinellas County Commission Redistricting Committee.
Ron Peri, based in Orlando, is a former minister and CEO of The Gathering—a Christian outreach group focused on aiding men. In 2022, Peri called homosexuality “evil” during a Zoom discussion which was posted to YouTube. While the video has since been taken down, CNN has published numerous quotes from it.
“So why are there homosexuals today?” Peri asked during the Zoom call. “There are any number of reasons, you know, that are given. Some would say the increase in estrogen in our societies. You know, there’s estrogen in the water from birth control pills. They can’t get it out.” Peri provided no basis for this claim.
According to CNN, Peri also said that “not very long ago, being a mother was the pinnacle of being a woman,” and compared access to abortion to the Holocaust.
Peri was also the CEO of airline software company Raddix International from 1993 to 2017.
Ziegler, along with being on the Sarasota County School Board, is the director of the school board training program at The Leadership Institute—a conservative activist organization that helps train “conservatives of all ages how to succeed in politics, government and the media.” She is also married to Christian Ziegler, who was just elected to be chair of the Republican Party in Florida.
Disney Parks Experience and Products Chairman, Josh D’Amaro, told the Orlando Business Journal that “we will stay focused on what we have always done,” emphasizing that they will continue to take care of the parks as they have always done.
“[We will] look at how we run our business,” D’Amaro said. “Look at the investments we are making in our business. As long as I can keep providing that, take care of our cast members, the Central Florida community [and] take care of these guests … I’m in good shape. I can only control what I can control.”
The Business Journal explained that D’Amaro declined to discuss the politics involved in the RCID dispute.
One lingering question is what happens to the district’s $1 billion in debt. DeSantis claims that Disney will continue to be responsible for this debt, but it is unclear exactly how this will be enforced, since the debt falls on the district and not the company.
This is especially difficult to enforce since DeSantis previously abolished Reedy Creek’s taxing status, meaning that instead of Disney essentially taxing itself every year, the taxpayers in Orange and Osceola counties will now have to foot the bill, which could be catastrophic to those areas.
It is unclear how this will play out since the bill has switched control over to the Florida legislature, which has seemingly maintained its status as its own district, while only changing the board and the name of the district to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.
On Mar. 8, the new Board of Supervisors met for the first time. Ziegler requested that any mask and vaccine mandates within the district be banned, opening up a debate that has been raging since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. “The board of this district is really there to oversee land use, taxing authorities and make sure we are balancing scales and serving the best interests of Floridians at the end of the day, that’s the goal,” Ziegler told Spectrum News 13.