In an interview with Orlando Business Journal, Disney Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro discussed the takeover of Reedy Creek Improvement District by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as well as plans for Walt Disney World expansion. This post shares what he had to say, plus our commentary about the future of Walt Disney World and its oversight.
Let’s start with a quick recap of what’s happened since we last covered the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) saga. State lawmakers passed a bill that renamed the Reedy Creek Improvement District, while maintaining the special district’s taxing benefits and most of its unique authorities (with some exceptions). The key change was that the Governor of Florida would appoint the district’s board.
Governor DeSantis thereafter signed the bill into law, and appointed members to the newly-dubbed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. At a press conference, DeSantis announced his five appointees, all of whom are political donors or loyalists, while also proclaiming that there’s a “new sheriff in town” and promising “accountability” for Disney. Among many other things, he claimed that theboard members would ensure that Walt Disney World will be “what Walt envisioned,” and gave examples of limits his appointees could impose and how future Disney content could be shaped.
In response, Walt Disney World President Jeff Vahle issued a statement that seemed to deescalate and further back down from any future fight over the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
“For more than 50 years, the Reedy Creek Improvement District has operated at the highest standards, and we appreciate all that the District has done to help our destination grow and become one of the largest economic contributors and employers in the state. We are focused on the future and are ready to work within this new framework, and we will continue to innovate, inspire and bring joy to the millions of guests who come to Florida to visit Walt Disney World each year,” read Vahle’s statement.
In his interview with OBJ, Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro struck a similar tone: “The reality is we work with different people around the world at our different theme parks. So we know how to work with different people. For all those reasons, I have to look at the situation of where we are going — I believe in where we are going — and I hope the board sees the same.”
“If that new board understands the value that gets created here and how it positively impacts the Central Florida community, I think they will be aligned with our vision and will carry on the Reedy Creek soul that’s been in place,” he said.
D’Amaro also told OBJ that Walt Disney World still embraces the differences in the world and welcomes all kinds of visitors, regardless of their political backgrounds or other beliefs. To that point, he added: “Will there be noise on the outside? Will there be different points of view that we may not like? Sure…[but] we are not going to get distracted.”
Shortly after publication of that piece, Disney released a clean-up quote from D’Amaro that was a tad more concise and clearer in Disney’s collaborative intentions with the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District:
“The Reedy Creek Improvement District created and maintained the highest standards for the infrastructure for the Walt Disney World Resort. We are hopeful the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight District will continue this excellent work and the new board will share our commitment to helping the local economy continue to flourish and support the ongoing growth of the resort and Florida’s tourism industry.”
I’m going to dispense with the RCID changeover commentary quickly before turning to expansions. First, because it’s pretty clear that Walt Disney World isn’t going to challenge this, meaning the Reedy Creek saga is effectively over. So long as high-profile corporate reps deliver deferential and measured quotes (likely why D’Amaro issued a ‘clean-up’ statement after the OBJ piece and why Iger hasn’t said a single word), this will finally fizzle out.
Second, because this is frankly not how I expected this to play out. Although it’s not what was originally promised by the state, it’s still pretty close. Moreover, it’s far from the compromise that was rumored earlier this year that would’ve been a mutually-beneficial outcome for both sides. Make no mistake about it, this is a loss for Disney, and one that poses a future liability.
The reason Disney isn’t pressing this further or challenging it in court, either directly or via a proxy with standing, likely has more to do with politics and optics than the law. It’s hardly a secret that DeSantis has presidential aspirations–he’s basically already soft-launched his run as a book tour.
Disney challenging this in court only prolongs the fight, and makes the company a punching bag during a high-profile run for the White House. It’s safe to assume they don’t want that type of attention or scrutiny, much less to be the public “foe” of a future president.
Whether Disney would win in court is almost immaterial. The company’s calculus is clearly that it’s more damaging to continue the fight than it is to risk being subject to the whims of political appointees. For Disney, it’s a matter of choosing the least-bad option and hoping they picked wisely, both in the short and long-term.
In an environment of rational actors, Disney would be correct. The interests of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and Walt Disney World would be aligned, as both would want to promote tourism and grow the local economy. However, that’s a fairly bold assumption in the actual current environment, though. I certainly can’t fault them for the decision, but here’s hoping they made the right call.
Moving along, Josh D’Amaro also discussed future growth at Walt Disney World during his interview. “Tron is spectacular, and adding something of this size and scope to the most visited theme park in the world is pretty ambitious and incredible. You see the guests walking off that experience … the look on their faces — and it adds to the whole experience we offer here. But there’s no end.”
“Tron is the tip of the iceberg of what’s coming,” D’Amaro teased. “We are just getting started.”
Normally, we’d write this off as typical posturing during the marketing push for a new attraction. After all, what else is Josh D’Amaro supposed to say? “Walt Disney World is now completed. Now that TRON Lightcycle Run is finished, there is no unused imagination left in the world. SO WE’RE DONE, FOOLS.”
Mic drop that that might be, I cannot imagine D’Amaro saying anything like that. So of course he’s going to talk up the future, hyping specific projects like Moana’s Journey of Water and Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. With that, it makes sense that he teases that more is to come, while making odd iceberg references, because those are famously known for fruitful completion of ambitious plans, and not at all for sinking ships!
In this case, though, I think there is more to D’Amaro’s tease. You might recall that recently-returned CEO Bob Iger ended the last earnings call by saying that he’s “very, very bullish” about the future of Walt Disney World and Disneyland.
Iger further clarified what he meant by this, specifically: “We have learned that when we invest in increasing capacity, with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge being a good example of that and Pandora a great example of that, we can grow our business.” Iger indicated that if you look at the results when Pandora – The World of Avatar was built in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the year-to-year growth numbers in terms of the number of people who visited were “stunning.”
He went on to infer that Disney is going to bring Avatar to Disneyland for the same reason, and that he was investigating other such opportunities. “I talked to Josh D’Amaro about that this morning. Carefully look at all the great franchises of the company, and see where we can invest in them in the parks to increase capacity, while preserving guest satisfaction.”
We discussed all of this in great length in Bob Iger Wants Big Expansions at Walt Disney World & Disneyland. All of that commentary still holds true, and is reinforced by this and other statements from Josh D’Amaro. Most notably, it’s consistent with D’Amaro’s D23 Expo presentation, during which he discussed early concept explorations for Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom. This included a replacement for Dinoland USA at Animal Kingdom, and potential expansion opportunities including a Zootopia Metropolis and Moana Mini-Land.
It also included a bold proposal for Magic Kingdom growth, albeit with shaky specifics–that portion was much more ‘blue sky’ in what it could entail. That presentation looked at Magic Kingdom Expansion Possibilities “Beyond Big Thunder” and showcased possible Coco, Encanto & Villains lands. While there was initial excitement among fans, that quickly soured. The positive sentiment gave way for skepticism about these possible plans, especially in light of Disney’s not-so-stellar track record in building things that were “firmly” confirmed at past D23 Expos.
Ultimately, our view is that Josh D’Amaro’s teaser is not typical marketing bluster, nor is Bob Iger’s bullishness on big expansion at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. Obviously, actions speak louder than words, and it might be hard to take these claims at face value given all of the scaled back plans, cancelled projects, and the fact that it took how many years to clone a short roller coaster in an empty warehouse. That’s fair.
Less fair are claims that the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District will cause the company to stop construction at Walt Disney World or cease investments in Florida. While not challenging the RCID state takeover may come back to bite Disney, there are absolutely no signs that they view it as an impediment to current or future plans. If they did, they would fight it. At present, Disney still has plans to relocate Walt Disney Imagineering’s core creative campus to Lake Nona, and it’s likely that future unveiled later this year–potentially at Destination D23.
There’s also the reality that Walt Disney World continues to outperform, and investors have begun to take notice of its success. This coupled with Wall Street souring on streaming means Disney may finally start to bet bigger on its theme park business. In light of that, we might be standing on the precipice of the next big development cycle that will once again start at Animal Kingdom (just like the last one!) and play out in this same fashion with major new additions to each park coming online between 2026 and 2031.
What is your reaction to Josh D’Amaro calling TRON Lightcycle Run the “tip of the iceberg of what’s coming” or saying that Disney is just getting started on park expansion at Walt Disney World and Disneyland? Any thoughts on the naming of Reedy Creek Improvement District and the governor appointing its board? Keep the comments civil, as this is not the place for politically-charged arguing, antagonism, personal attacks, or perpetuating pointless culture wars. While this topic is inherently political, we will delete comments that amount to little more than vapid political cheerleading. Respectfully debating the change is totally fine, but don’t attack others or troll for controversy. That’s why Facebook was invented.