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Ron DeSantis seized control of Disney's district. Employees are now quitting en masse.
Former employees at the district that oversees Walt Disney World say Ron DeSantis has installed leaders who are inept, dishonest and toxic.
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More than 30 employees have resigned from the government district that oversees Walt Disney World amid claims of mismanagement under new leadership installed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The departures include nearly half the senior leadership team at the agency formerly known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District — including the district administrator, chief financial officer, building official, fire chief and district clerk.
Department heads in charge of public works, procurement and facilities have also left. So have key managers involved with everything from employee training to fleet maintenance to fisheries management.
Altogether, records show the district, which is now known as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, has lost more than 350 years of combined experience in the nine months since DeSantis announced his plans to seize control from Disney — part of a continuing effort by DeSantis to punish Disney after the company criticized an anti-LGBTQ+ law he signed and stopped giving him campaign contributions.
DeSantis, who is now running for U.S. president, forced a bill through the Florida Legislature in February giving himself the power to pick the Disney district’s board of supervisors. The governor then put the agency under the control of a group of appointees that include a big Republican Party political donor, a Moms for Liberty co-founder, and a former pastor who once called homosexuality “evil.” And those appointees quickly forced out the district’s top executive and handed the job to yet another DeSantis loyalist.
Some of the former employees who have fled in the months since DeSantis’ takeover blame his new leadership for their decisions to leave.
“It is a toxic workplace right now,” Eulabel Vargas Maldonado, an accountant who spent nearly three years in Reedy Creek’s finance department before quitting in September, said in an interview.
She’s not alone. A number of ex-employees expressed similar sentiments in exit surveys, which Seeking Rents obtained in a public-records request.
One former manager who spent more than 30 years with Reedy Creek wrote that DeSantis’ political appointees “show a severe lack of trust for employees” and made his work “uncomfortable,” “stressful,” and “demoralizing.” Another manager with more than 20 years at the district wrote that the transition has been “very negative.” And a department director bluntly called the new leadership “unqualified and incompetent.”
“The legacy of this special district is being destroyed by those who have been placed in power here,” wrote a former executive assistant. “The BOS [Board of Supervisors] and the new District Administrator could care less about the work that needs to be done for the taxpayers. They claim transparency and bridge building, I see non-transparency and bridge burning.”
Leaders of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District did not respond to requests for comment.
The mass resignations appear to have hobbled the district, which is the municipal government responsible for providing services like fire protection, trash collection and building inspections at Walt Disney World — a 40-square-mile property that includes four theme parks, two water parks, more than two dozen hotels, and a 120-acre open-air shopping mall, among other attractions.
About a week ago, for instance, the district posted five job openings on LinkedIn just within its facilities department, which oversees building and vehicle maintenance.
“With the departure of more than 3 dozen employees, the district is no longer functional,” the department director who called the district’s new leadership “unqualified and incompetent” wrote in his exit survey.
But while the Disney district may be hemorrhaging experience, the new management has managed to find jobs for more DeSantis allies. Among the hires since the DeSantis-appointed board took control:
District Administrator Glenton “Glen” Gilzean: Gilzean was hired in May as the district’s top executive and given a $400,000-a-year salary — nearly $50,000 more than the previous administrator, who was forced out. Gilzean, who was formerly president and CEO of the Central Florida Urban League, was also until recently one of Ron DeSantis’ appointees to the state’s Ethics Commission, where he voted to dismiss an ethics complaint against DeSantis.
Chief of Staff Paula Hoisington: Hoisington previously worked with Gilzean as the board chair of the Central Florida Urban League and was also a member of DeSantis’ transition team when he was first elected governor in 2018.
Executive Assistant Ronald “Rocky” Haag: Brought in to be Gilzean’s assistant, Haag used to be the legislative aide to former state Rep. Fred Hawkins (R-St. Cloud), who sponsored DeSantis’ Reedy Creek takeover legislation in the state House of Representatives. DeSantis recently had Hawkins installed as the president of South Florida State College.
Director of External Affairs Brandy Brown: Before getting hired at the Disney district, Brown was the “director of strategic initiatives” in the Governor’s Office. Records show that one of her responsibilities included tabulating the value of media publicity DeSantis earns from stunts such as suspending an independently elected prosecutor in Tampa who had vowed to protect abortion rights.
Other DeSantis allies have landed lucrative contracts from the district.
For instance, in March, the board awarded a $795-an-hour legal contract to a D.C. law firm whose partners include DeSantis’ former roommate and chairman of the super PAC supporting his presidential campaign. That same day, the board handed a $495-an-hour legal contract to a new Tallahassee firm co-founded by a Federalist Society organizer who has advised DeSantis on judicial appointments.
And WFTV reported last week that the board recently gave a no-bid contract worth up to $1 million to a company run by yet another DeSantis appointee to the state’s Ethics Commission.
It often seems as if DeSantis instructed his board appointees to pester and pressure Disney whenever possible — and find ways to throw sand in the gears at Disney World.
Board members ordered their attorneys to help the local property appraiser fight lawsuits filed by Disney challenging some of its property-tax appraisals. They also decided to stop paying Disney for special annual passes that have long been provided to district employees as an employment benefit and to give workers a cash stipend instead — even though many employees have said they prefer to keep the passes.
And they just voted to spend $3 million less next year resurfacing the roads at Disney World. Board members publicly insisted that the budget cut was forced by supply-chain challenges, though others suspect the decision was driven by spite.
In many respects, the experience of the former Reedy Creek under Ron DeSantis’ control resembles that of New College of Florida. The tiny liberal arts school in Sarasota has been plagued by chaos and cronyism since DeSantis installed a new slate of governing board members in January, with orders to transform New College into something akin to Hillsdale College, an explicitly conservative Christian university in Michigan.
More than one-third of New College’s faculty left before the start of new school year, while the university’s student-retention rate and national ranking have plunged. At the same time, New College’s new trustees forced out the existing president and gave the job instead to DeSantis’ former commissioner of education — at a grossly inflated salary. New College has also added a former state Senate president as general counsel, a former Tallahassee lobbyist as dean of students, and the wife a state senator as head of the school’s fundraising foundation.
The chaos at Reedy Creek stands out, though. Because this used to be the best-run government in central Florida.
I say that as someone who once regularly attended Reedy Creek board meetings, back when I covered the Walt Disney Co. for the Orlando Sentinel. I wrote many stories about the district over the years — on everything from its sham elections to the ways Disney used it to duck certain taxes.
There was plenty that was problematic about the old Reedy Creek, which was essentially a one-of-its-kind economic development incentive that Walt Disney himself demanded from the state of Florida. The bespoke city services that Reedy Creek provided gave Disney an enormous competitive advantage over other businesses, which must work through real cities and counties run by local politicians balancing many competing constituencies.
But Reedy Creek also did its job really well. Though Disney dictated their elections, board members still scrutinized projects in greater detail and asked deeper and more probing questions than the vast majority of city councilors, county commissioners and state legislators I’ve covered over the years.
The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District is just as problematic in its own way. While it’s not controlled by Disney anymore, it is controlled by a single politician — a politician who is notoriously “thin-skinned and meanspirited” and who now has an easy way to punish a perceived enemy while rewarding friends with more political patronage.
But this version of the district is also a sloppy mess, too.
This is also just sad. Because another thing you learn when you spend a bunch of time covering Reedy Creek — seriously, you can find my name in old meeting minutes — is that lots of employees absolutely loved working there. For some of them, it was their dream job.
You could see this during a board meeting last month, when the district issued a proclamation honoring Mike Rickabaugh, the former building official and director of building and safety. Rickabaugh decided to retire in September.
“I miss you,” Rickabaugh told his former coworkers. “I can’t tell you how much I miss you. And that’s the toughest part in this whole thing, is missing everybody, every day, and the interaction that we’ve had, the impact we’ve had on this district.”
This was something that Eulabel Vargas Maldonado, the accountant who left in September, also mentioned.
“This was the best place I’d ever worked,” she said. But “things were getting worse as the months passed by.”
Leaving, she added, “was a hard decision. It made me sad.”