ORLANDO, Florida (AP) — According to several employees who recently spoke to the Associated Press, there has been a decline in morale and trust within the Walt Disney World government since aides to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis assumed control earlier this year. They further stated that the governing district has been abolished and that the organization is now plagued by politicization and cronyism.Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
Since the takeover in February, over 30 of the approximately 390 employees of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District have resigned, raising concerns that the well-run government entity is losing valuable institutional knowledge.
One former facilities manager with three years of experience expressed, “When I initially joined the district, I encountered an organization committed to serving our community to the best of its abilities and prioritizing the well-being of its employees.” This sentiment was confirmed by an employee exit survey conducted last week. The ex-facilities manager went on to say, “I now find myself in an entirely different district, one that prioritizes politics above all else and is willing to sacrifice its employees, community, and work for political gain.”
The Associated Press obtained the employee exit survey through a records request, and names have been withheld for security purposes. Most of the records were originally obtained by the Florida-based watchdog newsletter Seeking Rents.
With the resignation of so many district employees in such a short time, the district is now deemed “dysfunctional,” as stated by a former facilities director who left last month, according to her exit survey.
The Republican governor and the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature assumed control of the district in retaliation after Disney publicly voiced opposition to a state law prohibiting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary grades. This legislation was supported by DeSantis, who is currently vying for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
Prior to the acquisition, the governing district was under the control of Disney supporters and was known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Established in 1967, its purpose was to provide municipal services such as road repairs, waste collection, and firefighting for Disney’s central Florida theme park and resort spanning 25,000 acres (10,117 ha).
An environmental biologist who left the district in September after 35 years stated that DeSantis’ colleagues on the board had a detrimental impact on leadership, work culture, and trust, ultimately giving her a compelling reason to retire. An accountant who left in September added that she did not wish to depart but felt that “the workplace culture has been annihilated.”
According to the former employee who worked in the finance department for three years, “Now you witness feigned smiles, and I’m certain many employees are hesitant to express their true feelings due to fear of retaliation.”
When questioned about the staff resignations, a spokesperson for the district claimed that many of the departing employees had planned to retire before the change and that there were still employees with decades of experience, ensuring the retention of institutional knowledge within the district. The spokesperson asserted, “We are dedicated to improving the well-being of our staff members. Our unwavering commitment is to uphold our tradition of excellence and continue providing exceptional services to our taxpayers.”
Chairman Martin Garcia has repeatedly emphasized in board meetings that the new leadership aims to enhance the amicable relationship between Disney and the governing district and enhance government accountability and transparency.
“In over 56 years, Disney had its own government-controlled empire,” Garcia remarked in August. “Over the past six months, our board has implemented new policies and practices to address some serious issues.”
According to the former facilities manager, who outlined his reasons for leaving in his exit interview last week, new board members have accused the previous administration of cronyism and appointing politically influential associates to district positions or awarding them contracts.
The best man at Glenn Gilzen’s June wedding, one of the original board members appointed by DeSantis to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, was appointed by the new board as the district’s administrator in May. This individual is an ally of DeSantis. Gilzen also recently promoted his chief of staff, with whom he had previously worked, to the position of deputy district administrator.
Last month, the district authorized a no-bid contract worth $242,500 to update its emergency-call network with a company whose chief executive had worked with Gilzen at the Florida Commission on Ethics, where both had been appointed by DeSantis. Following local media reports criticizing the lack of competitive bidding, the company’s CEO requested that the contract be reopened for a transparent bidding process.
Disney has filed a federal lawsuit in Tallahassee against DeSantis and members of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board, alleging violations of its free speech rights. Disney is also engaged in a legal battle with the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District in state court in Orlando.
Prior to the change in district control, Disney supporters on the board entered into an agreement with the company to transfer control over design and construction at Disney World. The newly appointed DeSantis representatives claimed that this agreement, made at the last minute, exceeded their authority. Consequently, the district filed a lawsuit in state court to nullify the contract, and Disney countersued. A state court hearing on the matter is scheduled for Wednesday.
An executive administrative assistant who left the district in June cited the “bridge burning” actions of DeSantis appointees and Gilzean as the reason for her departure.
“I’m truly saddened by my departure from the district because there are fantastic individuals here doing exceptional work,” said the former employee, who had worked at the district for four years. “I hope they can carry on with the work that made us the magic behind the magic.”
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