Disney World is twice the size of Manhattan. It offers four theme parks, two water parks,
over twenty resorts, and a downtown shopping district. Sometimes it feels like Disney World is its
own small country. So it’s no surprise to learn that Walt Disney
World has its own government. It’s called the Reedy Creek Improvement
District. How did it come about, why did it come about,
and should it continue to exist? Back in May of 1967, Florida Governor Claude
Kirk Jr signed new chapters of the Laws of Florida that simultaneously created the city
of Bay Lake, the city of Reedy Creek, and the Reedy Creek Improvement District which
would hold jurisdiction over both. This district has far more governing power
than normal, allowing for their own building codes, called the EPCOT codes. The district is also responsible for running
their own services, such as fire stations, EMS, power distribution, water treatment,
waste disposal, and road maintenance. The Reedy Creek Improvement District is able
to fund these services through taxing the landowners within the district, which happens
to be Disney. This means that Disney is largely able to
fund the services that are crucial to the operation of Walt Disney World without placing
the financial burden onto the other taxpayers of central Florida. The district is governed by a five person
board of supervisors who are elected into their position by the landowners within the
district. Who again, is Disney. Or specifically, it’s a set of trusted and
loyal residents that Disney allows to live on property. This means that Disney is able to elect a
board who will govern the district in a way that benefits their needs as a resort. On paper, Disney and the Reedy Creek Improvement
District are two separate entities, but realistically speaking, they’re one in the same. The district was designed by Disney to operate
in a way such that Disney would be able to steer its direction unopposed. So why did they go through all that trouble? Afterall, Disneyland doesn’t need its own
government to be successful. Universal Studios Florida doesn’t. So why does Disney World? Well it’s rooted in the original plans for
all of the land Disney bought up in secret: EPCOT. Walt had dreams of a functional city of the
future that would act as an example for the rest of the world to follow. It was an idea born of the mid 1960s, when
cities in America were facing a rise in crime and a drop in quality of life. EPCOT was meant to be a cutting edge city
that would constantly be upgraded to showcase and utilize new and exciting technology. It would take advantage of new construction
techniques, new modes of transportation, and new methods of education for its younger residents. All of this had Walt worried that the red
tape of old bureaucratic building codes and construction regulations would slow down that
progress and at times put a stop to it. He obviously wanted everything to be safe,
but they wanted to go about it the Disney way. So by forming the Reedy Creek Improvement
District, Disney would have more than anything else, the freedom to develop EPCOT how they
saw fit. Unfortunately Walt Disney would pass away
in December of 1966, before he could realize his dream of EPCOT. Not only America, but most of the world, was
in shock at the sudden loss of Walt. He had been the face and voice of a studio
that created classics for decades. To many he was “Uncle Walt”, and a face
they had come to see on TV every week during the Disneyland TV show. The world lost a beloved icon that December,
and I mention all of this because I believe it was significant to what would happen next. Walt’s brother Roy would ultimately decide
to lead the company and move forward with the plans for Disney World, which would be
renamed to Walt Disney World. Internally there was hesitation as to whether
or not Walt’s dream city of the future was still possible, but externally the company
was dedicated to making EPCOT a reality. In order to do that though, they needed the
freedom that the Reedy Creek Improvement District would bring, and so it was petitioned to Governor
Claude Kirk Jr. Now for a moment let’s put ourselves in
his shoes. Disney has approached us with plans to build
a cutting edge city of the future dreamed up by the very man who came up with Tomorrowland. Florida, which at the time wasn’t the tourism
heavy hitter it is today, had the opportunity of being the home of a city that the rest
of the world would look to for inspiration at a time where city life was gaining an especially
bad reputation. It would bring with it hundreds of millions
of dollars of investment to the state not to mention tens of thousands of jobs and multiple
industries for EPCOT’s industrial park. All Disney asked for in return was a specially
legislated district to get the job done. While the combination of powers was new, no
individual power granted to the district would be uncharted territory for Florida. Lastly, the whole country was still facing
the shock of losing the American icon behind it all, the near universally loved Walt Disney. It seemed like a no brainer, and so it’s
no surprise that the legislation passed. It passed unanimously without any debate in
the Florida senate, and only saw one “no” vote in the house. The promise of an ideal city at a time when
the US needed it, the shock of losing an American legend, and the promise of economic prosperity
for Florida created a perfect storm that gave birth to the Reedy Creek Improvement District. It’s history leaves us with numerous questions. For one, should the Reedy Creek Improvement
District still exist today? The dream of EPCOT the city is long gone,
and it’s clear that Disney intends to keep the property mostly as a vacation resort. They even went as far as to deannex the town
of Celebration in the 1990’s in order to make sure they didn’t lose any power over
the district. So why should Disney continue to have the
freedom that the district brings? Yet on the other hand, the district continues
to allow Disney to shoulder the tax burden of the various departments that service the
resort, and Disney’s record for safety is exemplary, so perhaps it’s easier to just
leave it as-is. It also raises the question of whether or
not we could ever see something like this happen again. In today’s world I think it’s safe to
say there is no one public figure so universally loved as Walt Disney was at the time. We’re far more distrusting of corporations
than we were fifty years ago, and while less developed areas might welcome the attention
a company like Disney may bring, would a modern state’s government grant them that much
power without question? I suspect the answer to that is no. I believe that the Reedy Creek Improvement
District is a product of its time, and just one more reason why Walt Disney World stands
out as a unique and one-of-a-kind experience.