1

Many years ago, I overheard in casual conversation that Walt Disney World was essentially a country within a country, a privately-owned nation in which the laws of the U.S. don't apply.

I've never been there (or any Disney property), nor have I ever been a big "Disney person," so I have no firsthand experience with any of this. But now I'm adult with some understanding of the law, and it strikes me that I've never in all the intervening years stumbled across any information contradicting that statement.


Walt Disney World is located within a special jurisdiction (created for Disney) called the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Per Wikpedia, this is an area of ~40 mi2, within which the Disney company has "almost total autonomy," granted to it by The Florida State Legislature.

Within the District, the Disney company appears to be the sole provider of law enforcement, EMS, fire-fighting, utilities & sewage, and the like. Disney also controls building codes and zoning within the District.

The local government seems to consist of a Board of five people, all high-ranking employees of the Disney company, "elected" by the other residents (all Disney employees themselves; Wikipedia suggests there are only a couple dozen such residents).

It appears to me that a for-profit entertainment company has the legal authority to dictate the form and members of the local government, the laws that apply to everyone within the District (residents and visitors), and to exercise complete control over the enforcement of those laws (through its literal ownership of the police).

Just to be clear: this is not a question about copyright or other intellectual property law. I'm thinking about questions like:

  • Are people within the District protected from unreasonable search and seizure? (And is the definition of "unreasonable" importantly different than in the rest of the U.S.?)
  • Are Miranda warnings required when District police arrest someone? Do people arrested by Disney police actually have any rights?
  • Could a Disney official who lives in the District own slaves?
  • Could a brothel operate within the District? What about an opium den, or a meth lab?
  • Would it be illegal for a visitor to bribe a Disney official to tolerate (or even facilitate) a hub for human trafficking?
  • If authorities in Gainesville suspected that members of Disney EMS were sexually exploiting female patients, could the District obstruct the investigation by destroying evidence and medical records, and refusing to provide Gainesville police access to the suspects?
  • What's to stop a high-ranking Disney executive from murdering someone within the District and then wielding their position within the company, which appears tantamount to legal authority, to effect a cover-up?
3
  • This reference seems to give even scarier powers forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2019/02/21/…
    – DJohnM
    Mar 13 at 7:40
  • It sounds like Disney effectively controls municipal government. I don't know whether that's true, but consider what it would mean if it were true: municipalities in Florida do not have the power to suspend the fourth or fifth amendment to the US constitution nor to legalize slavery, prostitution, opium, methamphetamine, bribery, nor human trafficking. Nor does even the state government have the power to do most of those things. Cover-ups are also mostly illegal, but they do happen, so could Disney perpetrate a cover-up? Yes, but they would be committing an additional crime in so doing.
    – phoog
    Mar 13 at 14:25
  • FWIW, Colorado has an amusement park called "Lakeside" near Denver, which is an incorporated municipality with its own city council and police force despite having just one property owner of 99%+ of its territory and only about five residents (tenants in a company owned apartment building).
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 14 at 22:42

2 Answers 2

3

It is not the case that

Walt Disney World [is] essentially a country within a country, a privately-owned nation in which the laws of the U.S. don't apply.

It is true that the Florid legislature has essentially created a local government controlled by Disney, and granted it exemptions from or modifications of a number of state laws. In many ways Disney World is similar to a classic "Company Town".

But this is not in any way an exemption from federal laws, nor can the state grant individual exemption from state laws: the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment forbids any state to do that.

Note that according to the same Wikipedia article cited in the question:

Officers from Orange County, Osceola County and the Florida Highway Patrol are contracted to police the district.

While the Disney Corporation no doubt has significant influence in these police departments, it does not directly control the hiring, training, and discipline of these contracted police officers. It surely does not "own the police". In any suits for civil rights violations (particularly section 1983 suits) the departments and the counties and the state would be defendants, and so have an incentive to abide by the rule of law and respect civil rights.

Let us look at the items suggested in the question:

  • Are people within the District protected from unreasonable search and seizure? (And is the definition of "unreasonable" importantly different than in the rest of the U.S.?)

Yes they are. This right is granted by the US Fourth Amendment, and imposed on the states, and all local governments, via the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth. The standards for what is "unreasonable" and all other search and seizure law, come from US Supreme Court decisions, and Disney's police are not exempt. Nor are Florida state police operating inside Disney's district.

  • Are Miranda warnings required when District police arrest someone? Do people arrested by Disney police actually have any rights?

Yes, Miranda warnings and other constitutional rights in regard to the police are also imposed by the Federal Fourteenth Amendment, and apply fully in the Disney District, just as they do in all other parts of the US. So do any rights granted by the Florida Stare constitution, and by general Florida laws.

  • Could a Disney official who lives in the District own slaves?

No. 18 USC Chapter 77 - PEONAGE, SLAVERY, AND TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS specifically prohibits this. Also Florida has state-wide laws against Human Trafficking (as all US States now do) and has not granted any exemption to this for the Disney District or its residents. Of course it happens far too often all across the US, but not because of any legal exemption.

  • Could a brothel operate within the District? What about an opium den, or a meth lab?

Florida could grant exceptions to its anti-prostitution laws, as Nevada has done, but to the best of my understanding it has not done so. Opium and Meth are both illegal under Federal law. Florida could (but has not) grant exemptions to the state drug laws, but could not affect the federal laws.

  • Would it be illegal for a visitor to bribe a Disney official to tolerate (or even facilitate) a hub for human trafficking?

Yes. Again this is prohibited by Federal as well as state law. Bribes to law enforcement to overlook crime do happen, but such bribes are themselves illegal.

  • If authorities in Gainesville suspected that members of Disney EMS were sexually exploiting female patients, could the District obstruct the investigation by destroying evidence and medical records, and refusing to provide Gainesville police access to the suspects?

Not lawfully. Local officials and police can and do obstruct and hinder state and even federal investigations in some cases, but doing so is itself a crime, and Disney officials are not exempt from such. Whether they could exert political and/or economic influence to obstruct a state investigation is hard to say, but doing so would not be lawful.

  • What's to stop a high-ranking Disney executive from murdering someone within the District and then wielding their position within the company, which appears tantamount to legal authority, to effect a cover-up?

Powerful local officials, members of law enforcement, and politically and/or economically powerful private individuals have engaged in cover-ups of various crimes in the past, and no doubt will do o in the future. The powers granted to the Disney District might facilitate such coverups, but that would not make such cover-ups lawful. They would not be lawful, although the law might be less well-enforced than in some other places.

In short Disney is powerful, and has been granted some unusual legal powers and authorities, making it in effect a local government. But it is still bound by the same laws that bind all local governments, aside from any specific exemptions, and all Federal laws still apply in full.

2
  • 2
    Quick note: Disney doesn't have police. Reedy Creek Improvement District (i.e. Disney) provides fire and EMS, but law enforcement is done by the Orange County Sheriff's Office.
    – cpast
    Mar 13 at 1:33
  • 1
    @cpast Yes, also the Osceola County Sheriff's dept and the Florida State Highway Patrol. I have now mentioned this in the answer above. Mar 13 at 2:21
1

To what extent is Walt Disney World exempt from the laws of Florida and the United States?

Florida- they are completely subject to Florida law. Including the Florida law that gives them autonomy similar to a local government over planning and municipal services.

United States - not at all.

You are thinking that the Florida statute that created the District does way more than it actually does. The District is much more like a local government (albeit privately run) than some sort of state within a state.

  • Are people within the District protected from unreasonable search and seizure? (And is the definition of "unreasonable" importantly different than in the rest of the U.S.?)

Yes. No.

  • Are Miranda warnings required when District police arrest someone? Do people arrested by Disney police actually have any rights?

Yes.Yes. There is no “Disney police”, the district outsources this to Orange County, Osceola County and the Florida Highway Patrol. While uncommon in the 1960s it is increasingly common for new US cities to not establish a police force and instead pay the county to provide policing.

Disney does engage private security but they do not have the powers of law enforcement officers.

  • Could a Disney official who lives in the District own slaves?

No

  • Could a brothel operate within the District? What about an opium den, or a meth lab?

Both of these are still illegal in Florida, so no.

  • Would it be illegal for a visitor to bribe a Disney official to tolerate (or even facilitate) a hub for human trafficking?

Yes

  • If authorities in Gainesville suspected that members of Disney EMS were sexually exploiting female patients, could the District obstruct the investigation by destroying evidence and medical records, and refusing to provide Gainesville police access to the suspects?

Well, it’s hard to see how the Gainesville police have jurisdiction but if we substitute Orange County, Osceola County, Florida State Troopers or the FBI then they would be entitled to cooperation from the District and destroying evidence is a crime.

  • What's to stop a high-ranking Disney executive from murdering someone within the District and then wielding their position within the company, which appears tantamount to legal authority, to effect a cover-up?

The same thing that stops a high-level person in the White House, the Florida legislature or the Mayor’s Office in Orlando: it’s a crime.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.