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?
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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 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. 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.
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 EPCOTs 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.
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