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Morale down, cronyism up after DeSantis takeover of Disney World government, ex-employees say

More than 30 out of about 390 employees have left raising concerns that decades of institutional knowledge is departing with them, along with a reputation for a well-run government

Ron DeSantis takeover of Disney World government
Cars pass under one of the Walt Disney World gateways in Kissimmee, Florida, USA, 03 November 2023.CRISTOBAL HERRERA-ULASHKEVICH (EFE)

Morale and trust within the Walt Disney World government has deteriorated since allies of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took it over earlier this year, according to many employees who have departed in recent months saying the governing district has been politicized and cronyism now permeates the organization.

More than 30 out of about 390 employees have left the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District since it was taken over in February, raising concerns that decades of institutional knowledge is departing with them, along with a reputation for a well-run government.

“When I first joined the District, I found an organization that strived to be the very best at serving our community, sought the very best employees and valued those employees above all else,” a former facilities manager with three years of experience said in an employee exit survey last week. “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, and has withheld names to protect security. Most of the records were first obtained by Seeking Rents, a Florida-based watchdog newsletter.

With the departure of so many district employees in such a short period of time, the district is “no longer functional,” a facilities director who left last month wrote in her exit survey.

The Republican governor and GOP-dominated Florida Legislature took control of the district in retaliation after Disney publicly opposed a state law banning classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. The law was championed by DeSantis, who currently is running for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

Before the takeover, the governing district had been controlled by Disney supporters. It previously was named the Reedy Creek Improvement District when it was established in 1967 to provide municipal services like road repairs, waste collection and firefighting on the 25,000 acres (10,117 hectares) that make up Disney’s theme park resort in central Florida.

An environmental biologist who departed the district in September after 35 years said the DeSantis allies on the board had “negatively changed my experience with top leadership, the work culture, trust, and given me a good reason to retire.” An accountant who also departed in September said she hadn’t wanted to leave but “the workplace culture has been destroyed.”

“You now see fake smiles and I am sure that a lot of employees are somewhat scared to say what they actually feel because of retaliation,” said the former employee who worked in the finance department for three years.

When asked about the staff departures, a district spokesman said several of the workers who left had been planning to retire before the change and that there were still employees with decades of experience who could maintain the institutional knowledge of the district.

“We are committed to enhancing the well-being of our staff members,” said Matthew Oberly, the district’s director of external affairs. “Our unwavering commitment is to maintain our tradition of excellence and continue delivering outstanding services to our taxpayers.”

Chairman Martin Garcia has repeatedly said in board meetings that the goal of the new leadership is to reform the sweetheart relationship between Disney and the governing district and make the government more accountable and transparent.

“For over 56 years, Disney had their own governmentally controlled kingdom,” Garcia said in August. “In the past six months, our board has adopted new policies and practices to fix some of the glaring issues.”

The new board members, though, have been accusing the previous administration of cronyism while at the same time hiring politically-connected associates to positions in the district or awarding them contracts, the former facilities manager said in his exit interview last week.

One of the five original 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 by the new board to be the district’s new administrator in May and is a DeSantis ally. Gilzean also recently promoted his chief of staff, who he had worked with in his previous job, to be a deputy district administrator.

Last month, the district authorized a $242,500 no-bid contract to update its emergency-calls network with a company whose chief executive had served with Gilzean on the Florida Commission on Ethics, where both were DeSantis appointees. Following pushback from local media reports about the no-bid nature of the deal, the company CEO requested that the contract be reopened for an open bidding process.

Disney has sued DeSantis and the members of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board in federal court in Tallahassee over the takeover, claiming its free speech rights were violated. Disney is also battling the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District in state court in Orlando.

Before control of the district changed hands, the Disney supporters on its board signed agreements with Disney to shift control over design and construction at Disney World to the company. The new DeSantis appointees claimed the “eleventh-hour deals” neutered their powers, and the district sued the company in state court to have the contracts voided. Disney filed counterclaims. A hearing in the state court case is slated 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 why she departed.

“I am truly saddened that I am leaving the District, because there are great people here who do great work,” said the former employee who had worked at the district for four years. “I hope they can continue to do the work that has made us the Magic Behind the Magic.”

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