Fun Fact: Disney World Is Technically Its Own City (With a Fascinating History)

published Mar 24, 2019
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Like just about everyone, I was obsessed with Disney World when I was little. I had never been, but I knew a lot about it. Mainly I knew that it wasn’t in Illinois, where I lived. And while it was in Florida where my Nana and Papa lived, “their Florida” wasn’t the same as “Disney World Florida.” Geography is confusing for a six-year-old!

Strangely, I also knew that Disney World was technically its own city. When my sister and I talked about it (which was all the time), my dad loved to throw out this random bit of trivia. I recently remembered this fun fact all over again as an adult. When Googling to confirm, I found out that not only is Disney World, indeed, its own city, but it has a fascinating origin story and even its own government!

According to Chad D. Emerson’s article on the history of Disney World’s development and the creation of Reedy Creek Improvement District in Florida State University’s Law Review, the story goes like this: After the success of Disneyland, Walt Disney was looking for a site in Florida to host a new year-round theme park. Disney and his team had stringent criteria for the land (i.e. it had to be large, near a major new highway system, relatively inexpensive), and it seemed that the only place that would work in was Orlando.

So Disney and his business partners established five Florida-based corporations to discreetly purchase 27,000 acres of land for $5 million in 1965 (this translates to roughly $40 million in today’s dollars—a real bargain!). They didn’t want anyone to know Disney was planning anything for the region.

However, when it came time to plan and budget, Disney and his team found that, because the land was split across two counties (Orange and Osceola), they would need to deal with two different local governments during the project. After Disneyland opened, the team felt a development frenzy in Anaheim tarnished the park experience. So, for the Florida project, they kept a list of factors to help remain autonomous from tax liability, possible red tape from ordinances, and concern over the land being annexed by Orlando. The team decided that the best way to circumvent bureaucratic red tape was to ask the state government if they could create Disney’s own self-regulating municipality within a special district.

It took a couple of years and legislative work, but in 1966, the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) was created, housing the cities of Bay Lake (where the theme parks are) and Reedy Creek (now known as Lake Buena Vista, where Downtown Disney and the park hotels are). The improvement district would have its own land regulation, building codes, water control, waste treatment, infrastructure, utilities, fire department, and the like. RCID only really needed to work with the local counties on tax issues and policing.

More than 50 years later, the Reedy Creek Improvement District is still going strong. According to an article in The Orlando Sentinel, as of 2015, the district houses 44 residents—mostly Disney employees and their children—living in two mobile-home parks. They own their mobile homes, pay Disney $75 a month to rent the lot space, and are allowed to use a gated area to watch fireworks from the Magic Kingdom. Though it’s not clear how Disney picks who becomes a resident, all residents are employees of the company.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District is governed by five members of the Board of Supervisors. In order to be a member of the Board of Supervisors, you have to own land in the district—Disney awards elected officials five acres of the property (though it’s inaccessible and not developable, notes The Orlando Sentinel). Terms are four years long.

In order to vote for board members, you have to own land in the district. For every acre you own, you get one vote (if you own less than one-half acre, you cannot vote). Since the Walt Disney company owns 17,000 acres—about two-thirds of the property—they essentially elect the board members. Many of the board members the company elects are people who have worked closely with the brand in the past. The other votes come from board members and other businesses that own land. Since no residents own land, they don’t elect board members; however, they do elect city officials.

So there you have it: Disney World’s special district allows it to be one of the most special places in the world (in terms of magic and corporate-governmental autonomy). Would you live in Bay Lake or Lake Buena Vista if you had the chance?

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