Disney characters are part of a Halloween display in the front yard of a home in Celebration, Fla., a community designed by the Walt Disney Co. and one that could be affected by the actions of a new oversight board formed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Joshua Lott/The Washington Post

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Half a year into their job overseeing Walt Disney World’s sprawling property in central Florida, the individuals handpicked for the role by Gov. Ron DeSantis have found that managing a county-sized government linked so closely to the entertainment giant is fraught with complications.

One member of the new board resigned after just three months. Nearly half a dozen key department heads quit or retired. The DeSantis ally hired to run the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District was told he couldn’t hold that position and still serve as head of the state ethics commission; he stuck with his new job and its $400,000 annual salary.

Then came the very public blowup over the board’s decision to eliminate a long-standing benefit that gave the district’s 400-plus workers annual passes to the Disney attractions – a perk that could be worth several thousand dollars. Firefighters and other employees responded with anger, even tears, saying they felt betrayed by the move.

The turmoil within the district – which is responsible for maintaining roads, issuing building permits, and managing environmentally sensitive land and waterways in the 25,000 acres owned by Disney – seems destined to continue. The board on Wednesday evening approved a $194.5 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year, with details reflecting the contentious relationship between DeSantis and Disney.

Among the allocations for 2024 is $4.5 million for litigation. The board has already spent $1.9. million this year on lawyers – mostly to fight Disney in court – and members said they needed more money to pursue the legal battles. At the same time, they decreased the budget for paving and repairing the district’s 134 miles of asphalt by $3 million, though they blamed the cut on supply issues.

Outside observers say DeSantis’ political appointees lack the experience to run a special taxing district that covers nearly 40 square miles, contains the world’s most popular theme park, and draws more than 20 million visitors yearly.


“I think you have a bunch of novices trying to run a complex operation,” said Chad Emerson, a lawyer and business executive who wrote a book about the origin of “Project Future,” the code name for what became the theme park juggernaut here. “Disney had 50 years or so of doing this and had figured out how to make it run and how to make the guest experience great. I don’t think these folks care much about the guest experience.”

Despite the district existing solely because of Disney, the new board members often seem to avoid referring to the company by name, instead calling it “our taxpaying partner.” Several acknowledged during the budget meeting their need to come up to speed on complicated issues that the former board handled for decades – including the electricity bills paid to a utility operated by Disney.

“I don’t know what the process is, because this is all new to us,” chairman Martin Garcia said following a consultant’s analysis of the utilities agreement.

“We’re building from the ground up,” noted board member Bridget Ziegler.

Bridget Ziegler, right, and other board members of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District meet on Wednesday to approve its upcoming budget. Joshua Lott/The Washington Post

DeSantis has made his fight with Disney the centerpiece of his “war against woke.” The conflict started last year, when Disney criticized education legislation the Republican governor had promoted to block teachers from discussing gender and sexual orientation in early grades. Critics derided the measure as a homophobic and discriminatory “don’t say gay” bill. DeSantis signed it into law and began to publicly castigate Disney for what he said were attempts to “indoctrinate” children with “woke content.”

He then pushed the Legislature to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which lawmakers had created in 1967 to make it easier for Walt Disney’s company to build its new park on swamps and cattle ranches in central Florida. “The corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” DeSantis said in February as he announced the new oversight board and his aim for the entertainment giant to be treated like any other company. “There’s a new sheriff in town, and accountability will be the order of the day.”


The battle with Disney was a key part of DeSantis’ stump speech when he ran for reelection in 2022 and has remained so this year in his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. He claims his landslide gubernatorial victory in November showed that Floridians backed him and not Disney. These days, he also says that “we’ve basically moved on” from the dispute.

Ongoing lawsuits suggest otherwise. Disney is suing DeSantis in federal court for “weaponizing government” and violating the company’s First Amendment rights by punishing it for speaking out against his policies. The new district is suing the company for making “eleventh-hour” agreements with the previous board that could insulate Disney from changes the DeSantis appointees might try to make. A paradox of the board’s litigation: As the district’s primary landowner, Disney is also its main taxpayer and accounts for 86% of its $195 million revenue – which means the company is helping to pay for the legal action against itself.

The 1967 arrangement that created the Reedy Creek district gave Disney extraordinary autonomy and, critics contended, required little public accountability. The company said such control was necessary to build what became the heart of Florida’s tourist industry. Tourism revenue from Walt Disney World alone exceeds $18 billion annually.

Since the fight with DeSantis began, the company has canceled a $1 billion office project near the Magic Kingdom that was expected to bring about 2,000 new jobs to Orange County.

The new oversight district’s board is made up entirely of the governor’s appointees, including religious and conservative activists. Among them: chairman Garcia, a lawyer who is a major political donor to DeSantis and other Republicans in Florida; Ziegler, a founding member of the Moms For Liberty group, which is leading book-banning efforts across the country; Ron Peri, the head of a Christian ministry in Orlando; and land use attorney Brian Aungst Jr.

In May, board members hired Glenton Gilzean Jr., the former president and chief executive of the Central Florida Urban League, to run the district. DeSantis has appointed Gilzean to several posts over the years, including chairman of the Florida Commission of Ethics in 2019 and chairman of the state’s African American History Task Force this summer. His salary as administrator is $50,000 more than that earned by his predecessor.


The administrator has met with groups of employees in recent weeks to hear their concerns. Losing the annual pass perk remains the top issue; some workers said that getting themselves and their families into Disney’s parks free and receiving discounts on hotel stays, merchandise, and Disney cruises was the main attraction of their jobs.

The oversight district’s administrator, Glen Gilzean, left, confers with its board chairman, Martin Garcia, during Wednesday’s budget meeting in Lake Buena Vista. Joshua Lott/The Washington Post

“We were promised this new administration was going to make this place better,” district paramedic Pete Simon told the board last month. “But all we’ve seen and heard are cuts – cuts to the budget, cuts to possible staffing, cuts to maintenance and now cuts to benefits.”

Gilzean also has met with area residents who are worried about how some ideas floated by DeSantis and the board, such as building a prison near the Magic Kingdom, might impact their neighborhoods. Some wonder whether a trickle-down effect from the broader conflict could harm local businesses that rely on Disney visitors.

“I’m glad he’s open to talking with us,” said Debie McDonald, who lives to the south in the Disney-built town of Celebration. “But I would like to see this all go back to Disney. This feud is ridiculous, it’s petty and the only reason it happened is because of Gov. DeSantis’ political ambitions. The people he’s left us with are all in over their heads.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: