Have you ever wondered who governs the property of Walt Disney World? For instance, who regulates building codes, constructs roads, provides fire protection, and manages sewage. If your guess is the State of Florida or the counties of Orange and Osceola, you’d be wrong. What is to follow is a brief description of a very interesting, and sometimes controversial agency, the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
As many of you might already know, Disney created a number of dummy corporations in the early 1960’s in order to secretly purchase property in Central Florida. The last thing the company wanted was for the name “Disney” to leak out and drive up prices. For several years, using innocuous names like Tomahawk Properties, Compass East, and Ayefour Corporation (a pun on Interstate 4), Disney was able to purchase a large amount of land very cheaply. Some of these company names can be found on the Main Street Windows in the Magic Kingdom.
In the end, Disney bought approximately 27,000 acres for roughly $5M — an average of $183 an acre. On November 15, 1965, Walt, his brother Roy, and Florida Governor Haydon Burns held a press conference. At that time, Walt told the reporters that he was planning on building a second Disneyland-type amusement park and a “city of tomorrow” on their new land. Immediately, adjacent parcels skyrocketed to $1,000 per acre.
As much of the property was swampland and unsuitable for building, a vast amount of engineering would be required to create usable land. Roads, sewage treatment, and water management were all paramount before other construction projects could begin. Yet, it wasn’t feasible to expect financially weak Orange County or the taxpayers to pay for the job. And the company didn’t have that sort of capital. So Disney petitioned the state and was granted permission to create the Reedy Creek Drainage District which was incorporated on May 13, 1966. This allowed the company to sell tax-exempt bonds to pay for the infrastructure of Walt Disney World.
The company knew that a “drainage district” wasn’t enough if they were to realize all of their plans. Creating a futuristic city would require new and imaginative building techniques. Walt and the Imagineers had grand plans and they did not want to have to deal with out-dated building codes and mountains of local and state red-tape. The company needed autonomy.
Sadly, Walt died on December 15, 1966. Soon after, Roy became president and chairman of the board. One of his first directives was to inform senior management that the building of a futuristic city, to be known as EPCOT, was to be put on permanent hold. The company’s first and only directive was to build the Magic Kingdom , two hotels, and support facilities.
Even with EPCOT out of the picture, Roy still wanted Disney World to be self-governing and didn’t want to be bogged down by local rules and regulations. So the “postponement” of EPCOT was not shared with the press or the Florida legislature and the company continued to advertise its eventual construction. In addition, Roy let lawmakers know that the company could easily walk away from the Florida Project and sell their newly acquired land for a hefty profit if certain demands weren’t met. Whether this was a bluff or not, few know, but the ploy paid off. On May 12, 1967, Governor Claude R. Kirk, Jr. signed a charter creating the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID). The name “Reedy Creek” comes from the name of a stream that crosses Disney property.
In essence, the 27,000 acres of Walt Disney World became a pseudo-county to be run by the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company. It maintains its own building codes and is exempt from state zoning and land use laws. It provides fire protection and medical services. It supports a vast array of utilities including waste water treatment, electric power generation and delivery, natural gas distribution, and more. In addition, most roads on property are built and maintained by RCID. However, the property is subject to all state and local taxes.
Disney has the right to create its own law enforcement agency, but has opted to allow the Highway Patrol and Orange and Osceola County sheriffs deputies to patrol the roads. However, the RCID has a fleet of security vehicles and does also monitor the property.
When arguing for “county” status, Vice President Donn Tatum said that the Improvement District was needed to serve “the needs of those residing there.” But since it would be a number of years before EPCOT was ready for residency (if ever), the cities of Bay Lake and Reedy Creek (now Lake Buena Vista) were incorporated on property.
These two Walt Disney World communities still exist today and are hidden from the general public. The homes are inhabited by Disney employees and according to the 2000 census, Bay Lake had 23 residents and Lake Buena Vista had 16. (And yes, I know where the communities are located, but don’t ask because I won’t tell you. These people deserve their privacy.)
Since the “city” of EPCOT was never built, critics often cry “foul” and demand that Disney relinquish its autonomy. They also claim that it’s a conflict of interest to have RCID owned by the Walt Disney Company. But Disney maintains that the “EPCOT Building Codes,” which have been in place since the Improvement District’s inception, apply to the entire property. In essence, all of Walt Disney World practices and lives by the concepts that Walt envisioned for his futuristic city.
For the most part, utilities, building codes, and protection are a “behind the scenes” aspect of any city. We don’t think about them until we need them. But I think most of us would agree that Disney has done a beautiful job of maintaining their property and meeting the needs of their guests.
For more information about the Reedy Creek Improvement District, check out their website.
In closing, I would like to highlight one of the Reedy Creek Fire Stations. This unique structure is located on Buena Vista Drive, just north of Downtown Disney. Although you can’t go into this building, it is worth a drive by. As always, the Imagineers did an outstanding job. Be sure to notice the giant fire hydrant and hose that creates a nozzle fountain.