The Reedy Creek Improvement District in Florida is the immediate governing jurisdiction for the land on the Walt Disney World Resort. As of the late 1990s, it comprised an area of 38.6 sq. mi. (100 km²) within the outer limits of Orange and Osceola counties in Florida.
On March 11, 1966, several landowners, all fully-owned subsidiaries of what is now The Walt Disney Company, petitioned the Circuit Court of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which served Orange County, Florida, for the creation of the Reedy Creek Drainage District under Chapter 298 of the Florida Statutes. After a period during which some minor landowners within the boundaries opted out, the Drainage District was incorporated on May 13, 1966, as a public corporation. Among the powers of a Drainage District were the power to condemn and acquire property outside its boundaries "for the public use". It used this power at least once to obtain land for Canal C-1 (Bonnet Creek) through land that is now being developed as the Bonnet Creek Resort, a non-Disney resort.
However, Disney knew that their plans for the land would be easier to carry out with more independence, and they petitioned the Florida State Legislature for the creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which would have almost total autonomy within its borders. Chapter 67-764 of the Laws of Florida was signed into law by Governor Claude R. Kirk, Jr. on May 12, 1967, creating the District. On the same day, Governor Kirk also signed the incorporation acts for two cities inside the District: Bay Lake (Chapter 67-1104) and Reedy Creek (Chapter 67-1965). (The City of Reedy Creek was renamed to the City of Lake Buena Vista around 1970.)
According to a press conference held in Winter Park, Florida, on February 2, 1967, by Disney Vice President Donn Tatum, the Improvement District and Cities were created to serve "the needs of those residing there", and the company needed its own government to "clarify the District's authority to [provide services] within the District's limits" and because of the public nature of the planned development. The original city boundaries did not cover the whole Improvement District; they may have been intended as the areas where communities would be built for people to live.
Reedy Creek is a natural waterway, the course of which runs mostly through undeveloped territory east of Haines City. Its flow, drainage, and destination have been altered over the years by human development: It crosses Interstate 4 and enters Disney property west of Celebration and passes between Disney's Animal Kingdom and Blizzard Beach, meandering north past the western reaches of the Bay Lake city limits and the Magic Kingdom.
The Improvement District has far-reaching powers. Through the District, Disney could construct almost anything within its borders, including a nuclear power plant (which it never built, opting instead for a more traditional plant that supplements power from outside of the District). The District, as with any municipal corporation, can issue tax-free bonds for internal improvements. This became a point of contention when a 1985 law limited the amount of tax-free bonds in Florida. The eligible bonds were chosen randomly, causing the District to beat out Orange County, which had planned to build low-income housing, in 1989.
In addition to the power of eminent domain outside the District, the one other power that the District was given (that it would not have had if it were simply the two Cities) was an exemption to state zoning and land use laws. When the state later established the Development of Regional Impact study process, Disney, through the District, was able to avoid the paperwork and streamline the process to build theme parks and other attractions. On the other hand, county taxes, including property and sales taxes, still apply within the District.
The planned residential areas never came (though part of the plans for EPCOT did come through), due in part to the fear of losing control of the District, causing some to cry foul. Most notably, Richard Fogelsong argues in his book, Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando, that Disney has abused its powers by remaining in complete control of the District.
In addition, the Disney-controlled town of Celebration, Florida, which was built with many of Walt Disney's original ideas, which have evolved into a form of New Urbanism, was deannexed from Bay Lake and the District to keep its residents from having power over Disney by providing for separate administration of the areas. Celebration lies on unincorporated land within Osceola County, with a thin strip of still-incorporated land separating it from the rest of the county. This strip of land contains canals and other land used by the District.
A five-member Board of Supervisors governs the District, elected by the landowners of the District. These members, senior employees of The Walt Disney Company, each own undeveloped five-acre (20,235 m²) lots of land within the District, the only land in the District not technically controlled by Disney or used for public road purposes. The only residents of the District, also Disney employees, live in two small communities, one in each city. In the 2000 census, Bay Lake had 23 residents, all in the community on the north shore of Bay Lake, and Lake Buena Vista had 16 residents, all in the community about a mile north of Downtown Disney. These residents elect the officials of the cities, but since they don't actually own any land, they don't have any power in electing the District Board of Supervisors.
The District headquarters are in a building in Lake Buena Vista, east of Downtown Disney. Everything publicly run is run by the District; the cities are a formality. This is reflected in recent land acquisitions by Disney towards the west; these were added to the District but not Bay Lake.
The District runs the following services, primarily serving Disney:
- Fire protection and emergency medical services: through four fire stations
- Environmental protection: Many pieces of land have been donated to the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation and the South Florida Water Management District as conservation easements, and the District collects data and ensures that large portions remain in their natural wetland state.
- Building codes and land-use planning: The "EPCOT Building Codes" were implemented to provide the sort of flexibility that the innovative community of EPCOT would require. The provisions contained therein, although rumored to be exceptionally stringent, have in fact never been far and above those of the Standard Building Code or the Florida Building Code (FBC) that is currently in force in the rest of Florida. In fact, since the inception of the International Building Code (IBC) in 2000, the EPCOT Building Code defers much of its design parameters to the IBC-based FBC, and many of the reference standards contained therein. Particularly with regard to wind design, today's standards are better than the ones that previously existed, and today's RCID buildings are built to withstand 110 mph winds. Hurricane Charley (2004) reached maximum sustained winds estimated 105 mph on RCID property. Although the codes are ostensibly updated on a three-year cycle, the most recent and currently-used version of the EPCOT Building Codes is the 2002 version.
- Utilities: wastewater treatment and collection, water reclamation, electric generation and distribution, solid waste disposal, potable water, natural gas distribution, and hot and chilled water distribution, through Reedy Creek Energy Services, which has been merged with the Walt Disney World Company
- Roads: Many of the main roads in the District are public roads maintained by the District, while minor roads and roads dead-ending at attractions are private roads maintained by Disney; in addition, state-maintained Interstate 4 and U.S. Highway 192 pass through the District, as does part of the right-of-way of County Road 535 (formerly State Road 535).
Disney provides transportation for guests and employees in the form of buses, ferries, and monorails, under the name Disney Transport. In addition, several Lynx public bus routes enter the District, with half-hour service between the Transportation and Ticket Center (and backstage areas at the Magic Kingdom) and Downtown Orlando and Kissimmee, and once-a-day service to more points, intended mainly for cleaning staff.
The District does not have a police force, instead allowing Orange County and Osceola County to respond to incidents. Additionally, the Disney-run Disney Security acts much like a police force, including pulling over speeders. However, it cannot impose fines, but can take disciplinary action against employees and in extreme cases prohibit people from returning to Disney property (which does not include most of the main roads). The county sheriffs and the Florida Highway Patrol also patrol for speeders on the public roads in the District.