What Is The Reedy Creek Improvement District and Why Does It Matter?

If you’re a fan of Disney Parks (and especially of Walt Disney World), then you’ve doubtless heard a lot of talk lately about the Reedy Creek Improvement District. After Disney CEO Bob Chapek took a public stance against Florida’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Governor Ron DeSantis and his Republican legislature sought revenge against the company by dissolving the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

DeSantis and Walt Disney World

There have been various takes on what this dissolution actually means, ranging from an act of political theater that the Florida legislature can’t legally carry out to a governmental blunder with an unintended windfall to Disney in the form of up to $2 billion of its debt transferring to local governments and citizens.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of the situation, though, many Walt Disney World fans are left asking one crucial question – just what exactly is the Reedy Creek Improvement District, anyway? Let’s take a look at the origin and history of this special governmental body and explore how it’s been important to Walt Disney World‘s growth and development over the past 50 years.

Credit: CNN

RELATED: DeSantis Announces State Government Will Likely Absorb Reedy Creek

What is an improvement district?

An improvement district is not something that is unique to Disney. In fact, such districts – generally known as “special districts” – exist all over the United States for a variety of purposes. The U.S. Census describes them as follows:

Special district governments are independent, special purpose governmental units, other than school district governments, that exist as separate entities with substantial administrative and fiscal independence from general purpose local governments. . . . Special district governments provide specific services that are not being supplied by existing general purpose governments. Most perform a single function, but in some instances, their enabling legislation allows them to provide several, usually related, types of services. The services provided by these districts range from such basic social needs as hospitals and fire protection, to the less conspicuous tasks of mosquito abatement and upkeep of cemeteries.

Although the Reedy Creek Improvement District is considered a recreation-oriented development, other districts have been formed to offer various services that local governments are not equipped to provide. So what exactly can Disney do that the local governments of Orange County and Osceola County cannot (or will not)?

What is Reedy Creek?

As explained by noted Disney historian Jim Korkis in his book The Unofficial Walt Disney World 1971 Companion, “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.”

However, when we say “Reedy Creek” we rarely mean the actual body of water. Rather, we’re talking about the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which was signed into law by Florida governor Claude Kirk – the state’s first post-Reconstruction Republican governor – on May 12, 1967. Jim Korkis describes Reedy Creek‘s initial purpose:

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.

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.

Thus, when we consider that the original purpose of Walt Disney World was to provide a home to Walt Disney‘s original vision of EPCOT – a true “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” in the form of a planned utopian city – the need for the company to have a certain amount of governmental regulation seems more obvious than it might otherwise. However, even without this residential city on Disney land, free of interference, the prospect of self-regulation would clearly appeal to any corporation.

RELATED: Disney Makes First Public Statement Since Furious Florida Fallout

Essentially, Reedy Creek allowed the Walt Disney Company to build Walt Disney World on its own dime (with copious tax breaks, of course) in exchange for full control over its infrastructure within overall state and federal codes.

What does Disney do with all that control?

Obviously, not having to worry about local government – and being at the whims of different politicians with each election – is a boon to Disney, which prefers to have as much control over its Parks and property as possible. However, by and large the company hasn’t used this as an opportunity to flout civic norms or safety regulations; much the opposite, in fact.

The RCID, for example, required automatic sprinkler systems in all buildings long before the state of Florida did, has spent over a hundred million dollars on road improvements, had the first telephone company in the state to implement a 911 emergency call system, and implemented COVID safety protocols during the height of the pandemic that made Disney property probably the safest place in the entire state of Florida. On top of that, the RCID operates its own fire department, eliminating the potential for a delayed response if trucks needed to arrive from off-property (it still relies on Orange County and Osceola County for official law enforcement, however; Disney Cast Members with firearms would be a decidedly bad look).

Credit: Reedy Creek Fire Department

As Jim Korkis further explains,

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 acreage owned, the company basically governs its own property.

There are some more technical details to this process – there’s essentially a bit of political farce in the form of Disney employees who live on the property to make up the “electorate” of the district but can’t actually vote – but generally this setup is what has allowed Walt Disney World to govern, run, and develop its own property without needing to constantly gain approval from local and state government.


RELATED: Disney Delays Imagineering Campus Move to Florida Amid Tension With Governor DeSantis

What happens to Disney World without the Reedy Creek Improvement District?

What happens next is essentially anyone’s guess, as the Florida legislature’s dissolution of the RCID very pointedly didn’t accompany any specific plans for what would happen afterward (and might not even have been a legal dissolution in the first place).

The most likely situation is that Disney and the state of Florida will come to a deal allowing Walt Disney World to continue to function as it always has. Failing that, the governments of Orange and Osceola counties – which are populated by many Disney employees and supporting industries with a vested interest in the resort’s continuing operation – may strike their own separate deals with Disney allowing for some form of self-regulation to continue.

So, for those of you worried about the end of Disney Word as we know it because of this political conflict, rest easy; Ron Desantis and the Florida legislature have just as much invested in Walt Disney World‘s continued success as the Walt Disney Company does, and Disney’s lawyers will certainly continue to remind them of that.

About Andrew Friedenthal