In Married to the Mouse (Yale University Press, 288 pages), Rollins College political-science professor Richard Foglesong narrates the history of Disney's arrival on our doorstep. In Foglesong's metaphor, it's a courtship and marriage that started in the mid-1960s, when cheap land and available transportation led Walt and his cohorts to pick Central Florida as the location for their East Coast theme park. The marriage vows came in the form of the Reedy Creek charter, granting Disney a level of self-government that makes it almost an independent fiefdom in our midst.
The key to Foglesong's story is the way that Disney claimed it was going to build a functioning, ahead-of-its-time city, with 20,000 residents, which, as Foglesong writes, "was the reason for their governmental powers in the first place" -- and then they did no such thing. Disney never wanted actual people around who could challenge any decisions. Nonetheless, the benefits of the charter remain in place.
Not surprisingly, this hasn't been a happily-ever-after marriage. "Conflict erupted," writes Foglesong, "in the mid-1980s over who should finance the public facilities needed to support Disney's growth." Struggles arose over issues such as roads, affordable housing and transportation -- for example, a high-speed train from the airport to Epcot that Disney would allow only if the train made no stops before reaching the theme park.
"Married to the Mouse" paints the 1990s as a return to a more conciliatory attitude from local government, thanks to the emergence of Glenda Hood as mayor in Orlando and, more importantly, Linda Chapin as chairman in Orange County. According to Foglesong, when Disney asked for something, the county never said no: "It seemed to be an economic-development marriage gone awry, a one-sided relationship benefitting Disney to the exclusion of Orlando-area residents." For example, when it came to funding a roadway interchange -- one located mostly in Osceola County -- one Orange County official is quoted as saying, "Here was Chapin giving away ad valorem [property] tax money, the county's most sacred tax resource, to build what was essentially a driveway to Disney's door."
As Foglesong sees it, the push and pull between Disney and local officials is unequal for several reasons: Disney is immune from certain taxes; it has created a low-wage economy in an area now dependent on tourism; and Disney (as well as Universal) has become a competitor to the vitality of Orlando's downtown.
For its part, local government doesn't make use of its one big advantage: Disney's immobility. Although Foglesong doesn't spell out precisely how this marriage could regain its balance, in his view, it's a relationship that's clearly in need of therapy.; ;
Orlando Weekly: Explain the genesis of the book project.; ;
Richard Foglesong: I came to Orlando in 1984, and I saw when I came that Disney had had a big impact on Central Florida. I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma that never grew, and I always had a fascination with urban growth -- what causes some cities to grow and others not, and what the impact of growth is, and whether growth is good or not.
At what point in the project did you find the memo on which Walt wrote that he didn't want actual residents on Disney's property?
The Disney Co. got authorization from the state in 1967 to create their own private government that provides services and also has immunity from external regulations. I was very interested in how this private government worked. When I went to the Disney archives in Burbank in 1991, where I got to see a wealth of materials, I was really intrigued when I found a memo where you could see the Disney Co. scheming, I think, to tell the Florida legislature that they were building a real city when in fact they had no intention of building a real city. I thought at the time that that was a smoking-gun memo, and it fueled my interest in the project.
Did you find acknowledgement from local officials that they're stuck in this situation that's not of their own creation?
Well, I might talk about two sets of officials. I talked to some people from the past who were in public office in the '60s and '70s -- Henry Land would be one example. He's in his 80s. He was the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in the state legislature at the time when Disney came. He voted for the Disney charter. And he said to me bluntly it's the worst mistake he ever made in the state of Florida. The other set of officials is those currently in office or those in office in the '80s and '90s, and yes, I think there is that sense on the part of many that we are stuck with the decisions made in 1967.
I refer to the Disney charter as a prenuptial agreement, and I think the metaphor really works, because here you have the Disney Co., which could have gone elsewhere, marrying the state of Florida, Central Florida in particular, which at that time was not yet such an attractive place to live and do business. So they were unequal back in 1967 -- if you will, Disney had all the marbles. And what the Disney Co. wisely did was to cement that unequal bargaining relationship in the form of the Reedy Creek charter, so that if you fast-forward to the future the two parties are unable to bargain as equals over the terms and conditions of their relationship. If you use the marriage metaphor, well, isn't that what partners are supposed to be able to do?
One of my most interesting interviews was with [former Orange County Chairman] Mel Martinez. He's a conservative Republican, someone who believes in the market economy, but he was quick to say to me that he thought that the Disney Co. had taken advantage of this area -- that they had generated a lot of growth, but that it was the growth of a low-wage economy. In his metaphor, there's a giant pipeline that pumps profits from Orlando out to California. I think what mattered in the case of Mel Martinez is that although a conservative Republican, he was a personal-injury attorney before he entered political life, and he knows that corporations don't always do the right thing unless under compulsion to do so. And the problem is that there is no guarantee that the Disney Co. will perform in this contract relationship that they have with the state of Florida.
They are very dug in here, though. Can't the city or county take advantage of that?
You're right, that they could. In the normal history of a corporate/local relationship, the company comes to town and bargains to get concessions from local government in return for investing there. The company can do that because when they come they're footloose and they could go elsewhere, but once they're dug in, then typically the power relationship changes, and over time, as the local community becomes aware of the negative impact that that company might have, the local government can impose additional taxation or additional regulation in pursuit of the public good. Whether the local government can do that depends in part on the nature of the industry. If it's a high-tech semiconductor plant, they can pick up and move pretty easily. A theme park, obviously, is not footloose. You don't move a theme park to another country offshore -- not overnight at least. Their options really are limited.
Yes, I believe that Orange County politicians could in fact, despite the Disney charter, pressure Disney to do more for the community. They could pressure Disney to start paying the impact fees and law enforcement and utility taxes that they currently escape from paying.
The charter's a legal instrument. In a court of law Disney might be able to prevail. In a court of public opinion, if Disney were challenged on these issues, I think that Disney might well fold, because the Achilles heel of this very powerful corporation is their favorable public image.
How could a scenario like this play out?
The Disney Co. currently escapes from $15 million a year in law-enforcement taxes that property owners in unincorporated Orange County pay. The sheriff is always asking the County Commission for more money to fund operations. The sheriff or a candidate for sheriff could say, well, the Disney Co. should pay more. They impose an incredible law-enforcement cost on this community, and they ought to pay. And it would be very interesting to see how the County Commission would respond. Maybe if the Disney Co. paid more, we wouldn't have to talk about increasing the sales tax in Orange County in order to fund the sheriff's department. Now, I don't know why that doesn't happen. Instead, the sheriff has a sweetheart arrangement with the Disney Co., where the Disney Co. pays $1.7 million a year -- a figure much smaller than $15 million. In return for which, the Disney Co. gets a sheriff detail that they use almost like a private police force out there. I don't think the public sector benefits from that.
You have an interesting take on Celebration, where the town is a power ploy.
A lot has been written about the town of Celebration and about new urbanism and whether Celebration works or not. What I tried to do on my chapter on Celebration was to put the town in the context of Disney's historical relationship with Orange and Osceola counties. And what you see there is the Disney Co. developing property in Osceola for the first time to send a message to Orange County politicians that if they didn't like the impact of growth in Orange County, that Disney could always go somewhere else, knowing that they could get maybe a better deal in Osceola County, because Osceola County politicians have been complaining that Disney does not have enough taxable development there.
Well, then look what the Disney Co. did: They used their investment to leverage infrastructure investments on that part of Osceola County -- the widening of 192 in front of Celebration, as well as the construction of the Osceola Parkway, which has been this giant boondoggle. And what they've done is to gobble up all the available infrastructure funding that Osceola County had, making it difficult in the future for Osceola County to support something else. So I don't think Osceola County was very smart about it. Maybe you could say that Disney was, that they played one county off against the other.
What are some things that you found in your research that surprised you?
I was surprised that no one ever called the Walt Disney Co. on the fact that they said they were going to build one thing and in fact built another. When the Disney Co made its presentation in 1967, their word was their bond, I guess. In the mid-1970s, when they unveiled plans for the [version of] Epcot that was built, this permanent World's Fair, there was no evidence in the newspaper record nor from the interviews that I did that anyone ever said, "This is not what you said you were going to build."
In the Linda Chapin era, how very interesting that a woman regarded as moderate to liberal, a woman who described herself as the Joan of Arc of affordable housing, should have given Disney everything they asked for. She said to me in an interview, well, there are no current controversies, and so we should not challenge the Disney Co. Well, in fact there were controversies, they were just under the rug, and they were not publicly known. So we have Orange County in the era giving Disney $53 million to support an interchange at Osceola Parkway and Interstate 4 -- an interchange that was outside Orange County!
Affordable-housing issues are always brewing when it comes to Disney's relationship with the city and county, but what else is on the horizon that would be affected by the relationships you describe in your book?
Sometimes underlying issues pop up in surprising ways. I think the current fight over the tourist tax is the way in which the issue of the city's or the county's relationship to Disney is currently being addressed. The tourist tax is a 5-cent bed tax imposed upon local hotels. The statute says in so many words that the proceeds can only be used for tourist-related purposes. Now, when the arena was built, it was interpreted that the arena was tourist-related. So tourist-tax funds were used for the arena. Over the past couple of years there's been a fight over seemingly a small issue, whether tourist-tax money could be used to support the Orlando Science Center that nobody goes to. That might seem like a small issue, but I think that's kind of a wedge issue, the subtext being whether this tourist tax is going to be used narrowly, to provide services to benefit the tourists that come to the area, or used more broadly to benefit us, the people who live here.
If you recognize that Disney and the other tourist attractions impose a cost on our social-service delivery system, on our housing markets, on transportation, on education, then it would seem to follow that, one, they should pay their way, and two, that the tourist tax ought to be used broadly to compensate the surrounding community.
Mel Martinez said to me when he was elected, he anticipated that at some point in his tenure he would come to loggerheads with the Walt Disney Co. Now, in fact that didn't happen. He did make noises about the need to use the tourist tax broadly, but because he left so early in his tenure that fight never really occurred.
As I write in the closing pages of the book, I think that the facts are there for a political entrepreneur to advance him- or herself as a candidate for the Orange County chairmanship, let's say, by deserting tourism and promoting high tech as the local economic champion. By saying that growth should be good for the people who live here. And to revisit the issue of the Disney charter -- not in an anti-business way, but in the name of equity.