In response to public backlash, the governing district of Walt Disney World has decided to provide a stipend to employees whose complimentary passes and discounts for the theme park resort were eliminated due to a policy change made by a new district administrator and board members aligned with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
The stipend will amount to $3,000 annually, roughly equivalent to the value of the theme park passes, as explained by Glen Gilzean, the district administrator of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, during a meeting held on Wednesday evening. The board members subsequently voted unanimously to approve this stipend.
Acknowledging the criticism from employees who highlighted that the free passes had allowed them to create lasting memories with their families and enabled their relatives to enjoy the benefits of their hard work, the board members expressed their understanding.
"We heard you and have worked to respond accordingly," stated board member Ron Peri.
For decades, employees had enjoyed the privilege of free passes when Disney controlled the governing district. However, earlier this year, DeSantis and the Florida Legislature took control of the district in response to Disney's opposition to a state law known as "Don't Say Gay," which prohibited classroom discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity in the early grades.
The district, formerly named the Reedy Creek Improvement District and now known as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, provides municipal services such as mosquito control, drainage, and wastewater treatment.
Board members defended their decision to eliminate the $2.5 million worth of theme park season passes and various discounts on hotels, merchandise, food, and beverages that were previously provided to district employees by Disney-supporting predecessors. They argued that these benefits and perks were ethically questionable and favored the company at the district's expense.
Outside experts, however, likened the arrangement more to an employee benefit rather than a taxpayer scam, drawing comparisons to how university professors might receive complimentary passes to athletic events or free tuition for their family members.
Board member Brian Aungst emphasized on Wednesday evening that the previous structure of the program could no longer be legally sustained.
Governor DeSantis, who is campaigning for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, took control of the governing district, previously overseen by Disney allies, through legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature. He also appointed a new board of supervisors to manage municipal services for the extensive theme parks and hotels.
Nevertheless, the authority of the new supervisors over design and construction was constrained by pre-existing agreements between the district and Disney-supporting predecessors. In response, Florida lawmakers passed legislation to repeal those agreements.
Disney has filed a federal lawsuit against Governor DeSantis, asserting that he violated the company's free speech rights. In parallel, the district has initiated a lawsuit against Disney in state court, seeking to invalidate the agreements.