The Disneyland Resort in California is beautiful and iconic for many reasons: its history, its subtlety, and its wonderful, timeless design principal among them. But while Walt Disney loved his West Coast resort, he always felt there was a way to do things better.
Disneyland was plagued with nearby tourist traps and flashy scams – off-putting private entities that leeched off the success of the resort. Walt hated them, and when he began planning for his East Coast venture, he sought to ensure that kind of tacky fluff wouldn't follow him across the country.
The first line of defense would be sheer size. After settling on Central Florida as the final location for his new project, Disney began secretly buying up as much property as he could – the idea being that less reputable businesses couldn't build on land that wasn't theirs.
But, as any passionate Disney buff knows, the Florida Project was not planned to simply be a theme park. Walt wanted to build a working city of tomorrow – an experimental community at the cutting edge of technological advancement. To build something like that – something that could be ever-changing – Disney needed something more than space; he needed control.
How could Disney invent new methods of transportation if he kept having to run to city council to get them approved? How could the new city install roads and infrastructure without getting bogged down in local bureaucracy? How could Walt ensure he had the control over his property that he really, truly wanted?
During a four-day seminar in 1965, Disney's top executives hatched a plan. The Disney property would form its own municipal government, petitioning the state to create what is known as a “special district” – essentially a specialized mini-government created by the state that is allowed to act mostly independently of other, general local governments. It'd retain special rights and privileges normally associated with a government, and in return, it'd serve an important public function for the state of Florida and its citizens – particularly the citizens of the proposed City of Tomorrow.
When Walt Disney passed away in December of 1966, his brother Roy took the reigns, committed to continue Walt's initial vision. In 1967, the State of Florida created the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
When the Walt Disney World Resort opened in 1971, the Walt Disney Company began to pivot away from Walt's proposed City of Tomorrow and toward the proven concept of theme parks. Nevertheless, the Reedy Creek Improvement District still exists today, and it still serves an important function in both the planning and day-to-day operation of Walt Disney World.
Here are just a few things the District has the power to do – some of which it does often, some of which it could choose to do at any time:
1. Control zoning and building codes
Arguably, Reedy Creek's control of its own zoning and building codes is the most important advantage Disney has among tourist destinations in Central Florida.
Take Universal Studios Florida, for example. Planning for USF began in the early 1980s, but it wasn't until around 1986 that the plans for the park were officially announced. In what must have been a remarkable coincidence, Disney announced plans for their own movie-themed park in 1987.
But despite Universal having a sizable head start on Disney, Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney's Hollywood Studios) opened first in 1989. Universal Studios Florida didn't open its doors until 1990.
How did Disney do it? They simply eliminated the red tape. Most theme parks require an extensive permitting process – particularly when they're starting out new. Furthermore, the land must be zoned properly for entertainment, buildings and rides must meet city-mandated codes, etc. None of that was an issue for Disney, as they could issue their own permits, write their own zoning laws, and create their own building codes.
If Walt Disney World wants to build something, it can. The only people standing in the way are themselves.
2. Issue tax-free bonds
While there are countless complexities to government funding for projects, the fact remains that the Reedy Creek Improvement District has the legal authority to issue tax-free bonds for internal improvements.
What kind of internal improvements? Let's look at one of the biggest going on right now: the Disney Springs transformation.
One of the most important aspects of Disney Springs is the new twin parking garages being installed on-site. Anyone who's visited Downtown Disney in the past decade can attest to the horrid parking situation there (one ironically made worse by this very construction project, but that's a different issue), and so it would make sense that Disney would want to construct a new, larger place for guests to park.
But rather than pay for it themselves, Disney opted to instead have the Reedy Creek Improvement District issue a tax-free bond for the construction of those garages – costing Florida taxpayers somewhere in the range of $85 million.
In theory, the state will see that money recouped through increased access to Disney Springs, allowing more tourists to come to shop and, so it goes, pay more tax revenue back to the state. Of course, Disney gets to avoid paying those construction costs in the first place, while enjoying the increased revenue from Disney Springs – so it's a more complex issue than it may appear at first glance.