The Story of the Reedy Creek Improvement Districtby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Last week, the state of Florida legislature voted to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District, but the specifics of how that will happen by June 2023 are still unclear as well as the ramifications on the counties of Orange and Osceola.
What IS the Reedy Creek Improvement District? Many Disney fans have a vague idea about what it is and what it does but there seems to be some confusion about it and why dissolving it might cause chaos.
Basically, the creation of RCID allowed the Walt Disney Company to utilize some innovative techniques in building and to exceed the safety standards of both Orange and Osceola counties. All of this was able to be accomplished without taking any money from the taxpayers in those two counties.
Some have argued over the years that when the Walt Disney Company abandoned the idea of building Walt Disney's experimental city that the original reason for allowing the company such vast governing power through an improvement district was no longer necessary.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis added the discussion and vote on dissolving the Reedy Creek Improvement District to the special legislative session less than an hour before it began. He also added an item to the agenda to eliminate special protections that Disney gets from the Big Tech law from 2021.
Unlike other bills during a regular session, these bills were not sent to a committee for discussion and examination of possible consequences. There was no economic study done on the ramifications of dissolving the district. There was no consultation with the counties involved or any open forum for citizens to voice their opinions.
In less than three days, the Walt Disney Company lost RCID that it had been effectively managing successfully for over half a century. The final dissolution would take a year so the Walt Disney Company has some time to challenge the decision in the courts.
For instance, Florida Statute 189.072 states that such an act cannot be passed without the approval of the residents or landowners of a special district. However there is language in the bill stating "notwithstanding" that particular statute in an attempt to circumvent that existing law.
In addition, there is always the possibility that the bill could be repealed and the district could be re-instated or partially re-instated before June 2023 especially after the November election or that the nearly three dozen lobbyists that the Walt Disney Company has in the state capitol could negotiate some sort of compromise. If there is a lawsuit, then Florida taxpayers will be paying all the expenses for the defense.
Orange and Osceola counties would assume all of RCID's assets and liabilities on June 1, 2023. The counties would become responsible for paying for the Reedy Creek Fire Department and emergency medical services, as well as utilities like water and sewer systems, road maintenance, trash collection and more.
Employees of Reedy Creek could possibly be absorbed by the counties, though it's just as possible they would be let go because of cost. Governor DeSantis mentioned that money would be saved by the "elimination of duplication of services". RCID employs four hundred people of whom two hundred are firefighters.
"Well, I think Disney has to recognize they're a guest in the State of Florida," said State Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay) who is one of the primary sponsors of the bill.
In an e-mail sent out to supporters when the bill passed the Florida Senate, DeSantis wrote: "Disney has gotten away with special deals from the state of Florida for way too long. If Disney wants to pick a fight, they chose the wrong guy."
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said, "Without additional funding this will be catastrophic for the budget. Reedy Creek paid 100% of the cost of the law enforcement services that are provided by the Orange County Sheriff's Office. They provide 100% of the calls of their own fire rescue and emergency response department. Their own 911 call center. They provide 100% of the cost."
Walt Disney World already pays property taxes to both Orange and Osceola counties so that wouldn't change. However, WDW's two billion dollars of debt would be transferred to the counties and that would increase annual taxes according to Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph at least $580 per person and raise property taxes by twenty-five percent to cover the costs.
"There is no windfall to the county," Randolph said. "There could be a ton of expenses with no additional revenue to cover it. Disney pays the same Orange County, local and state school taxes, etc., as all other properties inside Orange County.
"If Reedy Creek goes away, the $105 million it collects to operate services goes away. That doesn't just transfer to Orange County, because it's an independent taxing district. However, Orange County then inherits all debt and obligations with no extra funds."
Taxpayers in those counties would also be financially responsible for road improvements and new construction at Walt Disney World among other things.
RCID operates at a loss of millions of dollars a year but that shortfall has always been covered by the WDW vacation destination itself and that money would now not go to the counties.
The bill to dissolve Reedy Creek would also apply to 133 other special districts established prior to November 5, 1968 including Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, the Daytona Beach Racing and Recreational Facilities District, the Canaveral Port District, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, Tampa Port Authority, the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority, the Tampa Sports Authority, and more.
Currently RCID is exempt "from a host of regulations and certain taxes and fees related to emergency services and road maintenance."
Reedy Creek itself is a natural waterway that runs through the area east of Haines City and enters Disney property west of Celebration and passes between Disney's Animal Kingdom and Blizzard Beach before meandering up near the Magic Kingdom and Bay Lake.
Improvement districts are not unusual but are more often in rural areas needing things like hospitals or fire protection often unavailable in unincorporated sections. There are improvement districts in every state in the United States and over a thousand in Florida.
Basically, the government has certain responsibilities and duties to people from providing fire protection, garbage collecting, water and sewer, street lighting to other services for which people pay taxes.
However, sometimes areas need things that are not covered under those general responsibilities, cannot be easily provided or need to handle them differently.
A specific boundary is established and a district is formed with the approval of a simple majority of the property owners. Once created, the district operates as a political subdivision with a Board of Directors made up of the property owners that governs the functions of that district.
These improvement districts can have wide ranging authority from imposing taxes, adopting ordinances, contract for professional services, construct and operate improvements, handle pest control and more. Overlaps in jurisdiction can and do occur so coordination is necessary.
Disney aggressively communicates with local, regional, state and federal regulatory agencies on matters that cross jurisdictional lines.
On May 12, 1967, Florida's then governor Claude Kirk signed a bill into law establishing the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID). There were two significant reasons for establishing the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
First, it was to ensure that Florida taxpayers would not be burdened with the cost of providing and maintaining essential public services and infrastructure required to build and operate Walt Disney World.
The question was not just how water and power were going to be provided (the nearest high-voltage power line was more than fifteen miles away from WDW property) but more importantly, who was going to pay for it all? In this way, Disney paid for it all themselves.
Second, since the original plan was to build a community of tomorrow on land encompassing two different counties (Orange and Osceola) that had different building standards and regulations, it was necessary to have a unified governing body that could provide the legislative and regulatory flexibility necessary to allow innovative construction techniques from buildings to roads and water control as well as environmental protection of the area.
The Walt Disney World property located on Orange County constituted approximately 18,800 acres and on Osceola County approximately 6,200 acres.
The "Epcot Building Codes" that were established are based on a philosophy that encourages new methods in design, construction and materials. They became "living documents" that served as a valuable reference for other major building codes throughout the United States and led to a wide range of imaginative projects and ideas such as the construction of a fiberglass castle and an eighteen story geosphere while assuring a high degree of public safety.
Fiberglass was formerly considered too combustible for structural use. A sophisticated system of sprinklers, computer-controlled smoke detectors, and flame retardants made possible the 189-foot-tall Cinderella Castle that used more fiberglass than any other single structure up to its construction in 1971.
The first structure built using epoxy glue instead of mortar to reinforce masonry was the Travelodge Hotel on Hotel Plaza Boulevard in Lake Buena Vista in November 1972. It is now the Best Western Lake Buena Vista Resort Hotel.
The first installation in the United States of the Swedish built Automated Vacuum Assisted Collection (AVAC) was for the Magic Kingdom. This unique method of waste collection allows refuse to be deposited at seventeen collection points around the park. Every fifteen minutes it is drawn through twenty-four inch pneumatic tubes, at speeds up to sixty miles an hour, to a central compactor station at the back of Splash Mountain and then trucked out to waste management.
Disney's Polynesian Village Resort and Disney's Contemporary Resort were the first major applications of steel-framed modular construction. Rooms were assembled at a plant six miles away, shipped by truck to the site and slipped into the framework with electrical wiring and plumbing inside.
The Contemporary used an A-frame while the Polynesian was done by stacking. The original design plan for the Polynesian was a pyramid frame that would have made the modular method more necessary.
The RCID requires sprinkler systems within all permanent and most temporary buildings, which was a first in Florida. It also requires extensive networks of smoke and heat detectors. The systems are automatically monitored by computers, which alert the RCID fire department well in advance of actual combustion.
All of WDW property (as well as some surrounding areas) is protected by a full time paid fire department provided by the Reedy Creek Improvement District. There are four stations on property today, but in 1971 there was only one located directly behind the Magic Kingdom. Their motto is: "Protecting the Magic".
RCID has spent in excess of a hundred million dollars on public road improvements. Over 167 lane miles of roadways have been funded and maintained without one penny of county, state or federal funds. RCID also funded the entire cost of traffic controls on State Road 535 when the Crossroads complex opened, even though the intersection was a state road, because it was impacted by traffic from within RCID.
The Vista United Telecommunications system was the first commercial fiber optic system in the United States in 1978 and became a one hundred percent digital switching network in 1983. It was the first telephone company in the state of Florida to implement a 911 emergency system.
The Inductive Power Transfer System and Automatic Vehicle Guidance System were the first-of-their kind transportation methods first used in the Universe of Energy pavilion at Epcot and The Great Movie Ride at Disney Hollywood Studios.
All of these achievements and more were the result of having the RCID in place to authorize these accomplishments.
An improvement district can also have its own law enforcement officers but Disney felt it was not a wise idea legally or branding-wise to have Disney cast members with guns strapped to their waists wandering through the guest areas.
So while Disney has hundreds of security officers, arrests and citations are issued by the Florida Highway Patrol along with the Orange County and Osceola County Sheriff' deputies, who receive suspects from the Disney security staff. There is a jail cell in the Utilidors under the Magic Kingdom.
RCID has complete jurisdiction over the property owned by the Disney Company in Central Florida and functions much like a separate county. It provides essential public services to the property such as fire protection, flood control, waste collection and environmental protection and more. If it wanted to, the district is authorized to build its own airport or nuclear generating plant.
RCID receives all its income from taxes and fees imposed within its boundaries. A board of five supervisors elected by the landowners conducts the business of the district. The supervisors must also be landowners. Disney owns the land in the district and since votes are strictly proportional to the acreage owned, the company basically governs its own property.
Disney sells five-acre blocks of undeveloped land to the supervisors and on completion of their terms as supervisor, these individuals sell their land back to the company. The law permits supervisors to vote on contracts between the district and their own companies. The Board of Directors hold monthly meetings.
There are two incorporated cities within the district. On May 12, 1967, Governor Kirk signed the incorporation acts for two cities: Bay Lake and Reedy Creek. The City of Reedy Creek was renamed to the City of Lake Buena Vista around 1970.
Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake are quietly hidden on property and with security gates, each house roughly two dozen people at any one time. These cities include all the developed land within the property and are populated basically by Disney employees who pay a low rent. They do not own the land where they live. They elect a city council.
The administration of the district is delegated to a General Manager whose responsibilities are similar to those of a typical city manager in Florida.
RCID created an Environmental Services Department in 1971 and tasked them not to just maintain but – whenever possible – improve the woods, wetlands and swamps that are native to the property.
The department has its own laboratory where it tests all types of water, including surface water, ground water, potable water, pools and swim beaches. Soils and sediments also are monitored. The constant environmental monitoring ensures the continuity of water quality within the district. It has been said that water that leaves WDW property is cleaner than when it arrived.
Without RCID, projects like the expansion of Disney Springs and the reconfiguration of Buena Vista Drive and World Drive would not only have required approval from Orange County officials, but they would have been subject to the county's budget approval process. RCID provides Disney with the means to approve and fund such improvements expeditiously, avoiding much of the bureaucratic red tape.
The same is true for smaller maintenance issues. A pothole on Epcot Resorts Blvd can be fast tracked for repair by RCID. The district's healthy budget allows for crews to maintain landscaping and remove litter along the roadways. Once integrated within Orange and Osceola Counties, roadways around the Disney parks and resorts would be entitled to no greater attention than other areas in their respective counties.
Amendments introduced to dissolve only part of RCID were voted down on party lines. Some have suggested that the dissolution of RCID is more about political retaliation and retribution than corporate accountability.
For now neither Orange nor Osceola County know what the full impact or ramifications will be, especially since many of the details are unclear including how the RCID will be dissolved.
The only good news is that there is still a year to try and figure things out. Whatever the final outcome, it will definitely be a whole new world.