The Story Behind Disney's Reedy Improvement District

At a time when urban infrastructure projects take years to plan and come to fruition, there's a lot we can learn from the development of Disney's theme parks. Disneyland in Anaheim, California took 366 days to build - an accomplishment that would be considered ludicrous by most public development authorities today. 

After watching the Imagineering Story on Disney Plus, I became more interested in the development of Disney World - Walt Disney's last great accomplishment before his passing in 1966. 

While learning about the development of Disneyworld, I came across the creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District. This is formally designated as a special district and known as the governing jurisdiction for the Disney World Resort (covering over 100 km2). 

Today, we see a number of challenges when it comes to forming public-private partnerships (e.g. Sidewalk Labs in Toronto). I find it quite remarkable how Walt Disney and his brother, Roy Disney, pulled off the feat of creating and securing control over the Reedy Creek Improvement District. 

What is a Special District?

The U.S. Census Bureau defines a special district as an "independent special-purpose governmental units (other than school district governments) that exist as separate entities with substantial administrative and fiscal independence from general-purpose local governments." 

The History of Special Districts

1800s: States were faced with an increased demand for infrastructure improvements. Special districts were created to issue bonds to pay for the projects - eliminating the need to drastically raise taxes. As with most new debt instruments, some districts overused this vehicle - leading a financial panic and consequent limitations on the use of special districts. 

1930s: President Roosevelt (during the great depression) brought back special districts as an efficient governmental form for accomplishing specific tasks. This led to the completion of several infrastructure projects including the Tennessee Valley Authority - an agency that developed agriculture, commerce and industry in the valley; and built the hydroelectric Wilson Dam. 

1950s: Leaders of the special districts began to work more closely with state and local executives and more importantly private entrepreneurs. Former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was particularly a big proponent of this shift - creating over 20 special districts from 1959 to 1974. 

1980s - Onwards: As local governments operate with reduced federal support, municipalities have created the business improvement district (a certain type of special district) to finance and drive economic activity in segments of larger cities. 

In the 2012 census, there were 37,203 special districts across the U.S - ranging across several purposes such as fire districts, water districts, library districts and transit authorities. 

What Makes The Reedy Creek Improvement District Unique? 

Most special districts have very specific powers (e.g. fire protection, water service, waste management and etc). Reedy Creek combines a lot of these powers under one entity - giving the Disney team the ability to create one of the world's largest theme parks. 

How Did Disney Pull This Off? 

By 1965, Disney had selected Central Florida as their location for Disney World and acquired over 27,000 acres of land for slightly more than $5 million. 

The next step involved the creation of a governing strategy for the new development - an event that's also known as the Project Future Seminar. During this four day internal meeting, Disney officials started to realize the need for co-operation with local counties. Key issues that came up included: 

  • The tax structure and the classification of the property as it was being developed. Disney wanted to keep large undeveloped portions of the land classified as agricultural land to avoid being taxed at higher commercial rates. 
  • The liability and tax benefits of establishing Disney's own drainage district.
  • The applicability of local planning and zoning for the site. 

A hallmark characteristic and a key concern for Walt Disney was the need to control the entire region. This led to the idea of creating a municipality where voting rights would be limited to landowners (Disney). 

While the idea of creating their own municipality was complicated to execute, the Florida government was open to the creation of a special district - an idea that both parties viewed positively. Disney would be able to control the project while the counties would avoid the debt involved with installing the infrastructure for this project. 

Despite the untimely death of Walt Disney in 1966, Roy Disney and the Disney team were able to push the project forward. In May 1966, the governor signed legislation that represented the privatization of many local regulatory responsibilities including water and flood control, waste collection, disposal, fire protection, land use and building regulations. 

A key theme within the legislation was to grant the district with the ability to use experimental technologies for transportation systems, public utilities and power and energy. Here's a key excerpt within the legislation: 

"In order to promote the development and utilization of new concepts, designs and ideas in the fields of recreation and community living, the District shall have the power and authority to examine into, develop and utilize new concepts, designs and ideas, and to own, acquire, construct, reconstruct, equip, operate, maintain, extend and improve such experimental public facilities and services as the Board may from time to time determine." 

Looking back, the creation of Disney World was more of an urban design project (vs. the focus on entertainment and creative design as depicted in the Imagineering Story). 

Was The Effort Worth It? 

An excerpt of a study commissioned by Disney in 1967 gives us insight into the societal impact that Disney had projected to the state of Florida: 

"Although a great deal of detailed planning remains to be done, it is evident from the scope of Disneyworld that the project will have a very significant impact on the economy of Florida and the Orlando metropolitan area. 

This impact may be summarized as follows: 

  1. During its initial construction stage and first ten years of operation, Disneyworld will directly generate a measurable addition in excess of $6. 6 billion in new wealth to the economy of Florida. The total impact of the new surge of spending in the economy will undoubtedly be much greater, but it is impossible to project precisely the increased wholesale and retail sales and employment created throughout Florida via the multiplier effect.
  2. The economic impact will be felt in all parts of the state, primarily in terms of increased tourist volume and the facilities and service employment it will require . Th e impact in terms of new construction, employment, wages, and retail sales generated by Disneyworld, however, will be most apparent in the Orlando metropolitan area and surrounding counties of Central Florida."

According to a study in 1983 by Rollins College (located in Orlando), the following was concluded: 

  • In 1980, the US population growth rate was 11% while Florida grew at 43.55% (with the three counties surrounding Disney World growing at 54.45%). 
  • The increase in tourists led to an increase in overall spending - Florida saw a 141.6% growth rate in expenditures in the first 10 years of operations. 

An economic and fiscal impact analysis by Fishkind & Associates Inc. in 2004 had a similar positive conclusion. 

"Fishkind's survey estimates that the local government impact figure totals $169 million a year in Orange County, with another $41 million surplus for Osceola County government and $800,000 in Brevard. There's a similar surplus created in the three counties' school districts: $125 million in Orange, $12 million in Osceola and $357,000 in Brevard."


It's quite remarkable to see the inner mechanics behind the development of Disneyworld and the lengths that Walt and Roy Disney went to make their vision a reality. Their ability to learn from the experience of building Disneyland and work with local authorities to create a special district that provided total control over the Disneyworld development was pure genius. It allowed them to work faster without being restrained by normal conventions. 

When I think about the challenges around physical infrastructure projects (highlighted by Patrick Collison), we can learn a lot from Disney and the Reedy Creek Improvement District.  

Note: An incredible essay that provides a lot more detail (and was a huge information source for this post) on the Reedy Creek Improvement District is this study by Chad Emerson.  


Suthen Siva

December 29, 2019