Disney is leaving the Lake Nona, Florida campus amid a DeSantis feud

Bob Iger, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Walt Disney Company, pauses as he speaks during an Economic Club of New York event in Midtown Manhattan on October 24, 2019 in New York City.

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Disney has abandoned plans to open a new staff campus in Lake Nona, Fla. amid rising tensions with the state governor.

Citing “changing business conditions” and the return of CEO Bob Iger, Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney’s parks, experiences and products division, penned a memo to employees Thursday announcing that the company will start construction of the campus will not require more than 2,000 California-based employees to relocate to Florida.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, but I believe it’s the right one,” D’Amaro told employees.

Many Disney employees balked at the company’s move plans when they were first announced by former CEO Bob Chapek in July 2021. While some left the company or moved to other roles at Disney that would not require a move to Florida, others harbored hope that the plan would fail after a postponement. The opening of the campus was originally planned for 2022–2023, but was later pushed back to 2026.

Disney is headquartered in Burbank, California but operates a number of field offices across the country and around the world.

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D’Amaro said employees who have already relocated to Florida may be able to return to California.

“I recognize that the power of this brand comes from our incredible people, and we are committed to managing this change with care and compassion,” he said.

Disney’s announcement comes amid a bitter feud between the company and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The company filed a lawsuit, accusing DeSantis and its special district’s new board members of conducting a campaign of political retaliation against the entertainment giant.

DeSantis targeted Disney’s specialty district, formerly the Reedy Creek Improvement District, after the company publicly criticized a controversial bill in Florida — dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics — that restricts discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms .

The special precinct has allowed the entertainment giant to effectively self-manage the operations of its Orlando parks for decades. The district ultimately remained intact, but its five-member board was replaced by DeSantis boards and renamed the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

Disney filed its lawsuit in late April after the new board voted to reverse development deals the company said it had made to protect its investments. The company has since updated that lawsuit to include newly passed legislation against its monorail system as further evidence of retaliatory action by the governor.

Iger has publicly criticized DeSantis and the Florida government, pointing out that Disney generates thousands of indirect jobs, brings about 50 million visitors to Florida each year, and is the state’s largest taxpayer.

Stickers and clothing advertising Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sit on a table before a book tour at the North Charleston Coliseum April 19, 2023 in North Charleston, South Carolina.

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In a statement later Thursday, DeSantis officials called the decision to close the Lake Nona campus “not surprising.”

“Disney announced the possibility of a Lake Nona campus almost two years ago. The project never materialized and the state was unsure if it would go ahead,” the DeSantis office said in a statement.

D’Amaro reiterated in his memo that the company plans to continue investing $17 billion in Florida over the next decade, including creating about 13,000 jobs. The company currently employs more than 75,000 people in the country.

Disney declined to provide specific information on the investment, but has previously announced plans to upgrade park attractions, expand existing parks and add more cruise ships to its Florida fleet.

“I remain optimistic about the direction of our Walt Disney World business,” D’Amaro told employees.

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