Disney Cancels $1 Billion Lake Nona Center in Florida Amid DeSantis Legal Fight

The ongoing battle between Disney and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has already reached a fever pitch, with Disney striking back in a big way Thursday, canceling a proposed $1 billion project in Lake Nona, Florida, that would have seen entire divisions of the company, including Walt Disney Imagineering and Disney Publishing, relocate to the Sunshine State.

Josh D’Amaro, the head of the parks division, announced the cancellation, which was first reported by the New York Times.

Disney’s outpost, near the Orlando airport in an area known as Lake Nona, was controversial from the get-go, with particular pushback from Walt Disney Imagineering, the secretive division of the company responsible for the company’s theme park attractions and cruise ships. The company used to be run out of a rambling collection of buildings down the street from Walt Disney Studios in Glendale, California. The campus took on a nearly mythic quality over the years, since it was founded by Walt as his black box operation for outside projects like a proposed family fun park in Anaheim and an experimental city in Florida.

The desire to relocate Imagineering led to a number of high-profile layoffs and even more high-profile resignations; the brain drain was immense and instigated a mini-revolt after the remaining Imagineers were looking down the barrel of a gun – having to move to an intolerant and openly hostile place like Florida.

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The relocation process was just as messy in other parts of the company. Initially, employees (or “cast members” in Disney terms) were given a much shorter window to decide whether or not they wanted to move. They were then given more time, considering how sluggish the company was to actually build something in Florida, but if you changed your mind and said that you would move with the later timetable, you were often told that your position had already been filled by a cheaper equivalent in Florida.

This wasn’t just Imagineering that was impacted – whole swaths of the company, from Disney Publishing to a unit formerly known as Disney Interactive, were given the ultimatum to move to the new Florida building. And many already had.

According to the New York Times, the office building known as the Lake Nona Town Center, “brought more than 2,000 jobs to the region, with $120,000 as the average salary, according to an estimate from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.”

Currently, Disney’s battle with Ron DeSantis has entered the legal stage, with the company suiting the Governor and the board that he installed as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District’s board, the group that replaced the Reedy Creek Improvement District, Disney’s self-governed board, earlier this year.

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This all started last year, after DeSantis passed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida. After a lot of hemming and hawing, then-CEO Bob Chapek made public comments about how Disney didn’t agree with the bill. The comments were pretty inoffensive, he probably should have said more, but DeSantis had a meltdown, vowing to end Disney’s special district and constantly threatening the company and Bob Iger, who returned as CEO in November.

After Disney sued DeSantis, he began making statements like suggesting that the state could build a prison adjacent to Disney property. Then DeSantis sued Disney. Last week during an earnings call, Bob Iger pointedly said: “Does the state want us to invest more, employ more people, and pay more taxes, or not?” And now this.

You can read D’Amaro’s letter to cast members below, where he suggests that employees who have already made the move could move back to California.

As many of you know, the company had decided to build a new Disney campus in Lake Nona and many Cast Members, Imagineers, and Employees were asked to commit to making a move to Florida. While some were excited about the new campus, I know that this decision and the circumstances surrounding it have been difficult for others.

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Given the considerable changes that have occurred since the announcement of this project, including new leadership and changing business conditions, we have decided not to move forward with construction of the campus. This was not an easy decision to make, but I believe it is the right one. As a result, we will no longer be asking our employees to relocate. For those who have already moved, we will talk to you individually about your situation, including the possibility of moving you back.

It is clear to me that the power of this brand comes from our incredible people, and we are committed to handling this change with care and compassion. I remain optimistic about the direction of our Walt Disney World business. We have plans to invest $17 billion and create 13,000 jobs over the next ten years. I hope we’re able to do so.

We are committed to our teams who call Central Florida home and to all of our Cast Members around the world, and I want to thank you for your continued dedication to Disney Parks, Experiences and Products and for delivering world-class entertainment for our Guests.

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