DeSantis’ Disney World Control Spurs Alleged Rise in Cronyism, Dampens Morale

Morale and trust within the Walt Disney World government have significantly deteriorated since allies of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis assumed control earlier this year, according to numerous employees who have recently left. They claim that the governing district has become politicized, and cronyism now permeates the organization.

Since the takeover in February, more than 40 out of approximately 370 employees have departed from the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. This has raised concerns about the loss of decades of institutional knowledge and the reputation of a well-run government.

In an employee exit survey, a former facilities manager with three years of experience expressed disappointment in the current state of the district. They stated, “I find myself leaving a completely different District. A District that prioritizes politics above all else and will gladly sacrifice its employees, its community, and its work if there’s an opportunity to score political points.”

The Associated Press obtained the employee exit surveys through a records request, with names withheld for security purposes. Most of the records were initially obtained by Seeking Rents, a Florida-based watchdog newsletter.

The high number of departures in such a short period of time has left the district “no longer functional,” according to a facilities director who left last month, emphasizing the negative impact of the new leadership.

The Republican governor and the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature took control of the district in response to Disney’s public opposition to a state law banning classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. This law, championed by Governor DeSantis, is seen as a key part of his campaign for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

Prior to the takeover, the governing district was controlled by Disney supporters and was known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District. It was established in 1967 to provide municipal services such as road repairs, waste collection, and firefighting within Disney’s theme park resort in central Florida.

An environmental biologist who left the district in September after 35 years expressed how the DeSantis allies on the board had negatively impacted their experience with top leadership, work culture, and trust, giving them a reason to retire. An accountant who also departed in September stated that the workplace culture had been destroyed.

The former employee who worked in the finance department for three years mentioned that there was a sense of fear among employees about openly expressing their true feelings due to potential retaliation.

When questioned about the staff departures, a district spokesman claimed that several of the workers who left had been planning to retire before the change and that there were still experienced employees who could maintain the institutional knowledge of the district. The spokesman also emphasized the district’s commitment to enhancing the well-being of its staff members and delivering outstanding services to taxpayers.

Chairman Martin Garcia, in board meetings, repeatedly stated that the new leadership aims to reform the relationship between Disney and the governing district, making the government more accountable and transparent. However, the former facilities manager, in their exit interview, revealed that the new board members accused the previous administration of cronyism while simultaneously hiring politically-connected individuals or awarding them contracts.

One of the DeSantis-appointed board members to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District was the best man at the June wedding of Glen Gilzean, who was named the district’s new administrator. Gilzean is an ally of DeSantis and recently promoted his chief of staff, with whom he had previously worked, to be a deputy district administrator.

The district recently authorized a $242,500 no-bid contract to update its emergency-calls network with a company whose CEO served with Gilzean on the Florida Commission on Ethics, where both were DeSantis appointees. After local media reports highlighted the lack of competitive bidding, the company CEO requested that the contract be reopened for an open bidding process.

Disney has taken legal action against Governor DeSantis and the members of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board, alleging a violation of its free speech rights. The company is also engaged in a legal battle with the district in state court in Orlando.

Prior to the change in control, Disney and its supporters on the board signed agreements to shift control over design and construction at Disney World to the company. The new DeSantis appointees argue that these agreements diminished their powers and filed a lawsuit in state court to have the contracts invalidated. Disney has responded with counterclaims. A hearing for the state court case is scheduled for Wednesday.

An executive administrative assistant who left the district in June cited the “bridge burning” by the DeSantis appointees and Gilzean as the reason for her departure. Despite the challenges, she expressed sadness about leaving the district and hoped that the remaining employees could continue their excellent work, which has made them the “Magic Behind the Magic.”

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