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Disney World government will give employees stipend after backlash for taking away park passes

Park guests stroll past the statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Friday, July 14, 2023, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
John Raoux
/
AP
Park guests stroll past the statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Friday, July 14, 2023, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Facing backlash, Walt Disney World’s governing district will pay a stipend to employees whose free passes and discounts to the theme park resort were eliminated under a policy made by a new district administrator and board members who are allies of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Facing a backlash, Walt Disney World's governing district will pay a stipend to employees whose free passes and discounts to the theme park resort were eliminated under a policy made by a new district administrator and board members who are allies of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The stipend will be $3,000 a year, which is around the equivalent value of the theme park passes, Glen Gilzean, district administrator of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, told board members during a meeting Wednesday evening. The board then unanimously approved the stipend.

Board members said they had taken to heart the criticism of employees who said the free passes gave them lasting memories with their families and allowed relatives to see the fruits of their work. Without the free passes, the parks would be unaffordable, many employees said.

“We heard you and have worked to respond accordingly,” said board member Ron Peri.

Employees had enjoyed the perk for decades when Disney controlled the governing district. The district was taken over by DeSantis and the Florida Legislature earlier this year in retaliation to Disney’s opposition last year to a state law critics have called “ Don't Say Gay,” which banned classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. Formerly known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the now renamed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District provides municipal services like mosquito control, drainage and wastewater treatment.

In justifying their elimination, board members claimed the $2.5 million in theme park season passes, as well as discounts on hotels, merchandise, food and beverages, that their Disney-supporting predecessors provided governing district employees amounted to unethical benefits and perks.

The arrangement was self-serving to the company because it funneled money back to Disney, with the district footing the bill, according to board members. Outside experts, though, have likened it more to an employee benefit rather than a taxpayer scam, similar to the way professors at a university may get free passes to athletic events or free tuition for family members.

“The old way this program was structured could no longer legally be continued,” board member Brian Aungst said Wednesday evening.

DeSantis, who is campaigning for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, took over the the governing district previously controlled by Disney allies through legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature and appointed a new board of supervisors to oversee municipal services for the sprawling theme parks and hotels. But the new supervisors’ authority over design and construction was restricted by the company’s agreements with Disney-supporting predecessors, which were signed before the new board took over.

In response, Florida lawmakers passed legislation that repealed those agreements.

Disney has sued DeSantis in federal court, claiming the governor violated the company’s free speech rights. The district has sued Disney in state court, seeking to nullify the agreements.