Audit Reveals Extent Of Disney’s Power In Florida

An audit report released Monday morning detailing Disney’s quasi-governmental role in Central Florida shows startling levels of power and influence the entertainment giant held in the Sunshine State for more than five decades.

The report from the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District examines the history of the creation and operation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID). The RCID was strategically created with Disney’s direct involvement as part of the corporation’s vision for a vast expansion in central Florida. The plan leveraged specially designed legal frameworks to give the entertainment giant controls that exceeded those even usually held by local governments.

The central finding of the audit shows that “Disney decided to take advantage of a Florida law that allowed for the creation of special improvement districts for certain projects.” It goes on to find that the corporation’s dominance of the RCID took on traditional roles of democratic governance but without the obligation of elections or public accountability.

The financial structuring of RCID was heavily in favor of Disney at the expense of Florida taxpayers. The report states, “The citizens of Osceola and Orange Counties paid for the operation of the district without receiving their entitled rights to participation and benefit.”

Disney reportedly fully controlled RCID by lavishing board members and high-ranking employees with exclusive benefits. The longstanding pattern of purchasing influence completely blurred any lines between service to the public interest and doing Disney’s bidding.

The benefits conferred to RCID officials and employees indicate Disney treated them like little more than corporate employees. Any careful examination shows little, if any, distinction between the benefits and outright bribes.

The audit states: “For years, the company treated district employees like Disney employees. Not surprisingly then, the District’s employees believed that it was their job to prioritize the interests of Disney.”

While RCID was granted extensive governance powers under its authorizing documents, it has historically focused almost exclusively on Disney’s needs rather than the local community’s service needs. The RCID has taken no responsibility for providing public services to schools or hospitals, leaving those costs to be covered by other districts.

The following steps are uncertain, but as the public digests the audit findings along with state and local officials, the need for transparency and accountability in Disney’s operations will be immediately apparent.

One audit finding should resonate in the days to come: “Complacency and an absence of political will allowed Disney to use the public-private partnership to entrench and amplify its corporate power.”