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by Ken Pellman (archives)
August 27, 2001
A review of the new book Married to the Mouse - Walt Disney World and Orlando that takes an in-depth look at the strange relationship between The Walt Disney Company and state and county governments.

Married to the Mouse - Walt Disney World and Orlando by Richard E. Foglesong
Hardcover. Yale University Press. 2001
ISBN: 0-300-08707-1

Book Review, Critique and Synopsis by Ken Pellman

book.jpg (14974 bytes)
Click to purchase from Amazon.com

Review & Critique

Introduction
Is Disney a bad citizen in Florida, and a bad neighbor to Orlando? Are you curious about the particulars of Disney’s special powers in Florida? Were you even aware Disney had a special arrangement with the state?

In the last paragraph of his book, Foglesong states, "This book has sought to lower the transaction costs of social learning by providing information about the Disney charter, how it was acquired, the immunities granted to the Disney Co., the subsidies they receive, and the consequences in terms of low wages, over-reliance on tourism, and competition with downtown Orlando."

In other words: the author is saying that the state and county governments in Florida have given Disney too much, and he hopes to help make Disney pay its 'fair share'.

If reading about all of that doesn't appeal to you, this book is not for you. The sentence quoted above is like a thesis statement for the book, and the book is like a series of lectures. This should not be surprising, as Foglesong is a professor of politics at Rollins College.

Although it is informative, this is not a book about Walt Disney and his grand visions for Walt Disney World (WDW) and EPCOT in particular. Nor is it about all of the interesting or innovative aspects of Walt Disney World. It isn’t about Michael Eisner’s management style. It doesn't even go into great depth about cast members, locals in general, or many of the cultural aspects of Disney's presence in central Florida.

Instead, the book goes into great detail about the steps Disney went through in securing the over 27,000 acres of property (now more) and regulatory powers & immunities for Walt Disney World, and how it has "used and abused" those powers ever since.

In the Beginning…
The book begins in the early 1960s with an anecdote about how Disney almost developed in St. Louis, but backed out when Walt was offended. Presumably, this was to set the tone of the book by showing that local powers had to be extremely careful and do all they could to secure investments from big corporations or else they'd lose out, local businessmen and politicians would be ruined, and so forth.

In the author's view, state and local legislators were either powerless or careless in their dealings with corporations.

Keep in mind that, in the mid-1960s, Disney consisted of little more than a studio that produced films and television programs under a single label, a theme park design firm then known as WED Enterprises, and a single theme park - Disneyland - which had been around for about ten years. Aside from a strong brand name and merchandise & film music licensing, that was basically it.

Disney didn’t own any hotels or resorts, broadcast or cable television stations or networks, or radio stations or networks, cruise lines, shops outside of Disneyland, or any other theme parks. Then again, corporations in general were smaller back then than they are now.

By promising to build a second, larger Disneyland, and with intentions to build an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), and by then holding tens of thousands of acres at a key intersection of highways, Disney descended on central Florida in the late 1960s with something that would radically change the area forever. The project seemed highly desirable.

But Disney wanted some major concessions.

Married to the Mouse describes what Disney wanted as far as regulation, what Disney got and how Disney got it, and some of what it has meant for Disney and the surrounding area.

Disney's Kingdom
What Disney got, through state legislation, was a twin-tier government, with two general-purpose local governments on the bottom (City of Bay Lake, City of Lake Buena Vista), and a special-purpose district - the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RDIC) on top.

RDIC is the controlling government, and is in turn controlled by the landowner - Disney. RDIC has immunity from state and county regulation of buildings, land use, airport and nuclear power plant construction, the distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages, and more. It can issue bonds, and do anything a city or a county could do. However, the two counties in which the property is located - Orange and Osceola, still have taxing power, and there is the sales tax of the state, and the outside inspection of elevators.

There are no county building inspectors checking on Walt Disney World, and sheriff deputies must check in with RDIC.

The only permanent residents of the two cities (people with citizenship rights) are forty-seven trusted, supervisory-level Disney employees.

Foglesong maintains that The Walt Disney Company and associated companies selectively hide behind the RDIC when it is convenient to be a government instead of a corporation. Disney will put forth a public face some of the time and private face at others. He also frequently states that the special arrangements provided to Disney were intended to help in the development of a true EPCOT, which was never built.

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