Disney firefighters push back against DeSantis board appointees over decision to end free park passes

Crowds pack and fill Main Street USA at the Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World in Orange County, Florida on June 1, 2022. Walt Disney World is celebrating its 50th anniversary all of 2022.
A crowd on Main Street USA at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom Park.Joseph Prezioso/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
  • Disney firefighters are upset over the loss of free park passes, a perk they had long cherished.

  • "My only question is, what's next?" one firefighter told the DeSantis-crafted board last week.

  • The decision put the firefighters in an odd position. They at first welcomed DeSantis' takeover.

Workers at the Walt Disney World governing district last week voiced opposition to a decision by the new board to do away with free passes and discounts to the famed theme park, arguing that the removal of such a vaunted perk would make the resort too expensive for many employees.

During a board meeting, a group of current and retired firefighters at what was previously known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District remarked that the free Disney passes were a lifeline to them and their families, and even stated that the perk led many of them to accept their jobs with the district.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District, which had long provided critical services including drainage, wastewater management, and firefighting to Walt Disney World in Orlando, is now known as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis created the board to take the place of the existing district.

Pete Simon, a firefighter for the district, said that the DeSantis-appointed board was removing an indispensable perk that attracted many employees to their current positions.

"The removal of this benefit takes away, for some, their entire reason for working here," he told the board at a hearing last week. "This week marks the first brick being pulled in the dismantling of the district and the job that we all love and count on. My only question is, what's next?"

Aaron Clark, a firefighter whose father was also a firefighter for Reedy Creek, became emotional as he spoke of the childhood memories that he had going to the park using the passes, a tradition he has kept with his three daughters.

Ricky Clark, the father of Aaron Clark, said that curbing the passes was "disturbing" and indicated that the conflict between DeSantis and 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," he said, according to The Associated Press.

The board's stance has put the firefighters in a frustrating dilemma, as they once welcomed DeSantis' takeover of the tax district. Their old contract expired more than four years ago.

Last week, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District said that the $2.5 million worth of season passes and discounts the previous board had allocated for the improvement district's 400 employees was an unethical perk that the district had to shell out funds to support.

The DeSantis-appointed board subsequently issued a complaint to the state Inspector General, which probes fraud and abuse.

The five members of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District were tapped for their roles by DeSantis after he pushed for the dissolution of Reedy Creek — a retaliation for Disney's opposition to a state law that prohibited the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3.

The policy was later expanded to include public school students up through 12th grade.

Disney is now fighting back against DeSantis in court, with the company seeking damages over the governor's handling of their ability to operate as Reedy Creek, as they have accused him of seeking to "weaponize government power" over them.

Martin Garcia, the chair of the DeSantis-crafted board, said that the passes gave an unfair advantage to Disney over other businesses within the district, and added that families were able to gain more from the perk than employees who are single.

In lieu of passes, Garcia indicated that the Central Florida district was poised to give employees a roughly $1,400 pay bump.

Read the original article on Business Insider