Disney cancels $1 billion Florida investment amid feud with DeSantis

Zac Anderson
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Disney is canceling a $1 billion project that would have relocated 2,000 jobs to Central Florida amid a dispute with Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has passed multiple bills targeting the company after it opposed one of his signature policies.

Josh D’Amaro, who oversees Disney’s parks, sent an email to employees Thursday saying the Orlando project – which had been on hold and faced criticism within the company – has officially been canceled and that employees won't be relocating from California to Florida.

“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,” D’Amaro said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “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.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis , left, is taking on Walt Disney Co in a battle over control of the company's holdings in the state.

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The New York Times, citing two people who were briefed on Disney's decision, wrote that "the company’s battle with Mr. DeSantis and his allies in the Florida Legislature figured prominently into Disney’s decision to cancel the Lake Nona project."

DeSantis' office suggested that market forces drove the cancelation of the project, which was slated for Orlando's Lake Nona development adjacent to the Lake Nona Town Center.

"Disney announced the possibility of a Lake Nona campus nearly two years ago," DeSantis communications director Taryn Fenske said in a statement. "Nothing ever came of the project, and the state was unsure whether it would come to fruition. Given the company's financial straits, falling market cap and declining stock price, it is unsurprising that they would restructure their business operations and cancel unsuccessful ventures."

The cancelation is a major blow to Central Florida's economy. The jobs slated to be transferred to Florida included many highly-paid theme park designers, which Disney calls Imagineers.

DeSantis has been feuding with Disney since the company opposed HB 1557, officially known as the Parental Rights in Education law but derided by critics as the "Don't Say Gay" bill. He called the Legislature into special session to end Disney's self-governing status and take control of the special district that governs Disney's properties in Central Florida following the company's stance.

Shortly before that law took effect, though, Disney pushed through two contractual agreements − a development agreement and a declaration of restrictive covenants − that allow the company to sidestep the state's oversight, prompting DeSantis to initiate an inspector general investigation and pass legislation to nullify those agreements. He also signed a bill putting Disney's monorail system under the purview of state inspectors.

The DeSantis-appointed oversight board also voted to nullify Disney's actions, prompting a lawsuit from the company.

Disney's lawsuit alleges DeSantis led a "targeted campaign of government retaliation" against the company. It accuses DeSantis of threatening the company's business and violating its constitutional rights, calling the government's actions "patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional."

The lawsuit alleges five different violations of Disney’s constitutional rights by DeSantis, including two free speech violations, a property rights violation, a due process violation and a violation of the contracts clause.

Disney CEO Bob Iger also has been vocal in criticizing the state's actions against his company.

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“Does the state want us to invest more, employ more people, and pay more taxes, or not?” Iger said on an earnings call last week.

D'Amaro's email notes that the company still has $17 billion in investments planned for Disney World over the next decade, which would bring roughly 13,000 jobs.

“I hope we’re able to,” he said.

The campaign of his nemesis, former President Donald Trump, pounced on the news, declaring that DeSantis had been "caught in the mouse trap."

"Today, Ron DeSantis single-handedly lost the state of Florida nearly $1 billion in investment and over 2,000 jobs — with an average salary of $120,000 — because he was too weak to fight for his state," the campaign wrote in an email blast. "Ron DeSantis’ failed war on Disney has done little for his limping shadow campaign, and now is doing even less for Florida’s economy."