The chairman of the special district that oversees Walt Disney World properties on Wednesday defended a move to eliminate perks that provided access for district employees and their families to the entertainment giant’s parks.
During a meeting of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board of Supervisors, two district firefighters and a retired firefighter questioned the decision about park passes and discounts.
The decision, announced Monday, was another twist after the newly created Central Florida Tourism Oversight District succeeded the former Reedy Creek Improvement District amid a feud between Gov. Ron DeSantis and Disney. The Reedy Creek district was closely aligned with Disney.
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The firefighters said Wednesday that the park-related benefits were long viewed as an incentive to work for Reedy Creek. Pete Simon, a lieutenant paramedic with the Reedy Creek Fire Department, said when the district changed hands, firefighters supported the move because they were “being stonewalled” by former district leaders and that “we were told that our jobs and our benefits were safe.”
“When I was applying here and got a job offer, I sat down and did a pros and cons list,” Simon said. “My top three pros were a step (pay) plan, better insurance because we offer dental and vision, and the kicker for me was that I’d be able to take my family to the parks, my three little girls to the parks. This benefit is intangible and intergenerational.”
But district board Chairman Martin Garcia said the policy discriminated in favor of one business in the district over others. Also, he said the park-related benefits weren’t equitably used by employees and that the policy could be illegal.
“We looked and found that in some years, only 30 percent of the employees use the passes,” Garcia said. “Other years it was 50 percent. And I think the highest utilization was 67 percent. So, we were paying as a district, or the old board was paying, for passes that some of our employees weren’t even using.”
Garcia added that employees with larger families drew larger benefits than those with smaller families or who were single.
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As a compromise, Garcia said the district is considering a measure to “gross up” all employee wages by $1,425.
“Now, is that the right number? We don’t know,” Garcia said. “OK, if with further information, we learn that that number needs to be grossed up higher. We’re going to gross it up higher. If we learn that it needs to be reduced, we’re not going to reduce it.”
For the general public, Disney offers Florida-resident annual passes costing from $399 to $969 a person, depending on the package, according to information on the Disney World website.
The district on Monday announced a referral had been submitted to the Florida inspector general about “perks and benefits that the former Disney-controlled Reedy Creek Improvement District funneled back to Disney.”
A news release included an invoice dated Dec. 31, 2021, from Disney for $533,522, including $492,383 for tickets.
Garcia said Disney park passes also weren’t fair to other businesses within the district.
“It wasn’t a pass that the employee could take to a non-Disney business and say, ‘I’ve got a $1,000 pass and I’d like to use it in a non-Disney restaurant or business, or a non-Disney hotel,’” Garcia said. “So, it was a policy that was created in favor of one taxpayer and not in favor of others.”
Separately, the district needs to determine the impact of the change to retired employees, who left with the belief of lifetime passes, Garcia said.
Reedy Creek Fire Department firefighter Aaron Clark told the board he sought to work for the district, where his father worked for 26 years as a firefighter.
“This has been a generational benefit that I was able to have growing up,” Clark said.
“I now have three girls of my own — (ages) 6, 3 and 1,” Clark added. “When entering this field, my goal was to become a firefighter with Reedy Creek. And one of the biggest draws was the chance to be that dad that was able to make those same memories.”
Disney is battling in state and federal court with the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and DeSantis about a series of issues. Disputes began after the company opposed a 2022 law that restricted instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in schools.
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The Republican-controlled Legislature and DeSantis this year replaced the Reedy Creek district with the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. The Reedy Creek district was created in the 1960s and had broad powers to provide local-government services.
Disney is the largest landowner within the district, which includes the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista. Both cities had under 30 residents in the 2020 census.
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