Disney cancels plans for a $1 billion college campus and 2,000 jobs in Florida

Written by Don Chmielewski and Lisa Richwin

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The Walt Disney Company has canceled plans to build a company campus of about $1 billion in central Florida that would have housed 2,000 employees, according to an email to employees Thursday, on the back of its ongoing legal battle with the company. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Disney parks president Josh D’Amaro said “changing working conditions” have prompted Disney to reconsider its plan for 2021 to move employees, including Imagineers who design theme park rides, to a new campus in Lake Nona.

The company was expected to spend up to $864 million on the project, according to the Orlando Sentinel, on a campus that would serve as a base for Walt Disney Imagineering and its Disney Parks, Experiences and Products division.

Disney’s decision to move Imagineering’s California-based staff across the country prompted complaints from employees, many of whom said they didn’t want to move to Florida.

“Due to the significant changes that have occurred since the announcement of this project, including new leadership and changed working conditions, we have decided not to proceed with the construction of the campus,” D’Amaro wrote. “It wasn’t an easy decision, but I think it’s the right one.”

A week ago, Disney CEO Bob Iger publicly questioned Florida’s interest in the company’s continued investment in the state. On a call with investors to discuss quarterly results, he noted that Disney has employed more than 75,000 people in Florida, attracts millions of visitors each year to Walt Disney World and has plans to invest $17 billion to expand the resort over the next decade.

“Does the state want us to invest more, employ more people, pay more taxes, or not?” Egger asked.

DeSantis’ press secretary, Jeremy T. Redfern notes that while Disney had announced the possibility of a campus in Lake Nona nearly two years ago, “the project never came to fruition, and the state wasn’t sure if it would come to fruition.”

Given the company’s financial position, Redfern wrote, “it is not surprising that they restructure their business operations and cancel unsuccessful projects.”

Disney and DeSantis got into an increasingly pitched battle that began in March 2022, when then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek criticized legislation in Florida that would limit discussion of gender identity and sexuality in elementary schools.

DeSantis is expected to announce soon that he will seek the Republican nomination for president of the United States in 2024, and then moved on to strip Disney of its longstanding autonomous power over Walt Disney World in Orlando. The governor said that “Disney Woke Up” should not receive special treatment in the state.

Disney called the move political retaliation over what should be protected free speech and sued the state last month to overturn the moves.

Former President Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign quickly grabbed the news, with the Trump War Room account tweeting that DeSantis’ actions are costing the state jobs and investment. Democratic State Sen. Linda Stewart, who is part of Orange County, called it “disappointing” that Florida lost jobs.

Former Congressman Carlos Curbelo, a Republican representing Miami, praised DeSantis’ leadership during the pandemic, but said the governor was tarnishing his own record and discouraging companies from coming to Florida or expanding in the state.

“This is the first clear negative consequence of the overly aggressive approach to governance and politics,” Curbelo said.

Iger’s predecessor announced plans in July 2021 to move jobs out of Southern California to a new facility in Central Florida, citing its “business-friendly climate”. While Disney has never disclosed the value of its investment, the Los Angeles Times reports that it will receive approximately $580 million in tax breaks over the next 19 years.

“I remain optimistic about the direction of our Walt Disney World business,” D’Amaro wrote. We have plans to invest $17 billion and create 13,000 jobs over the next ten years. I hope we can do that.”

(Reporting by Don Chmelewski and Lisa Richwin in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler, Anna Driver and David Gregorio)

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