Workers in Disney World district criticize DeSantis appointees' decision to eliminate free passes

Employees of Walt Disney World’s governing district on Wednesday confronted new board members appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis over a decision to eliminate their access to free passes and discounts to the theme park resort, saying it makes park visits unaffordable.

During a monthly board meeting, several current and former district firefighters spoke emotionally about how the free passes to Disney parks were a benefit for them and their families that played a major role in their decision to work for the 56-year-old district, which provides municipal services like mosquito control, drainage, wastewater treatment, planning and firefighting to Disney World.

“The removal of this benefit takes away, for some, their entire reason for working here,” said firefighter Pete Simon.

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District earlier this week said that $2.5 million in season passes and discounts on hotels, merchandise, food and beverages that their Disney-supporting predecessors provided the district's 400 employees amounted to unethical perks that benefited the company, with the district footing the bill. The district on Monday submitted a complaint to a state Inspector General, which investigates fraud, mismanagement, waste and abuse.

The five members of the district’s board were appointed by DeSantis earlier this year after his takeover of the district in retaliation for Disney’s opposition to a state law banning classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades.

Firefighter Aaron Clark, whose father was also a district firefighter, choked up as he recounted how growing up his dad took him to the parks using the passes and how he now does the same thing with his three daughters.

His father, Ricky Clark, called the elimination of the passes “disturbing” and said that the adversarial attitude the district and DeSantis have taken toward Disney “has nothing to do with district employees.”

"My family had many memories at the park, spending time together, memories that can never be taken away," Ricky Clark said.

Board chair Martin Garcia defended the decision. The passes and discounts unfairly favored Disney over other restaurants and shops that operated within the district, employees with large families got a greater benefit than single employees and a private company can't give gifts to government workers who provide services to it, Garcia said.

In its place, the district was offering employees more than $1,400 in a wage increase, he said.

The tussle over whether the free passes and discounts were an unethical benefit came as the new district administrator, who board members appointed last May, faced an ethics dilemma of his own. Glen Gilzean, who earns $400,000 annually in his new job, also was chair of the Florida Commission on Ethics. A legal opinion last week said he was unable to simultaneously be a commission board member and work for the district because the commission prohibits public employees from serving on its board.

Gilzean announced at Wednesday's board meeting that he had resigned from the ethics commission.

A fight between DeSantis and Disney began last year after the company, facing significant pressure internally and externally, publicly opposed the state law which critics have called, “Don't Say Gay.”

As punishment, DeSantis took over the district 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.

During a budget presentation at Wednesday's meeting, Gilzean said that $4.5 million was targeted for litigation expenses for the 2024 fiscal year, as well as $1.9 million for the 2023 fiscal year.


Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at @MikeSchneiderAP