Disney Pulls Plug on $1 Billion Development in Florida

In March, Disney called Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida “anti-business” for his scorched-earth attempt to tighten oversight of the company’s theme park resort near Orlando. Last month, when Disney sued the governor and his allies for what it called “a targeted campaign of government retaliation,” the company made clear that $17 billion in planned investment in Walt Disney World was on the line.

“Does the state want us to invest more, employ more people, and pay more taxes, or not?” Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, said on an earnings-related conference call with analysts last week.

On Thursday, Mr. Iger and Josh D’Amaro, Disney’s theme park and consumer products chairman, showed that they were not bluffing, pulling the plug on a nearly $1 billion office complex that was scheduled for construction in Orlando. It would have 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.

The project, known as the Lake Nona Town Center, was supposed to involve the relocation of more than 1,000 employees from Southern California, including most of a department known as Imagineering, which works with Disney’s movie studios to develop theme park attractions. Most of the affected employees complained bitterly about having to move — some quit — but Disney largely held firm, partly because of a Florida tax credit that would have allowed the company to recoup as much as $570 million over 20 years for building and occupying the complex.

When he announced the project in 2021, Mr. D’Amaro cited “Florida’s business-friendly climate” as justification.

Mr. D’Amaro’s tone in an email to employees on Thursday was notably different. He cited “changing business conditions” as a reason for canceling the Lake Nona project. “I remain optimistic about the direction of our Walt Disney World business,” Mr. D’Amaro said in the memo. He noted that $17 billion was still earmarked for construction at Disney World over the next decade — growth that would create an estimated 13,000 jobs. “I hope we’re able to,” he said.

But 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, according to two people briefed on the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. A spokeswoman for Mr. Iger said he was not available for an interview.

About 200 Disney employees already relocated to Florida from California. Mr. D’Amaro said in his note that the company would discuss options with them, “including the possibility of moving you back.” The Lake Nona project had initially been scheduled to open next year. Last July, Disney pushed back the move-in date to 2026, citing construction delays.

The Lake Nona campus, about 20 miles from Disney World near the Orlando International Airport, had been championed by Bob Chapek, who served as Disney’s chief executive from 2020 until he was fired last year. Mr. Iger, who came out of retirement to retake Disney’s reins, was much less enthusiastic about the project — even before the company became mired in its battle with Mr. DeSantis. As soon as he returned to Disney, Mr. Iger began telling lieutenants, for instance, that it made little sense to move Imagineering so far away from Disney’s movie studios. As he is fond of saying, “Creative teams need to be together.”

Disney is also in the midst of cutting $5.5 billion in costs as it seeks to improve profitability, pay down debt and restore its dividend.

Mr. DeSantis and Disney have been sparring for more than a year over a special tax district that encompasses Disney World. The fight started when the company criticized a Florida education law that opponents labeled “Don’t Say Gay” because it limits classroom instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation — angering Mr. DeSantis, who repeatedly vowed payback.

Since then, Florida legislators, at the urging of Mr. DeSantis, have targeted Disney — the state’s largest taxpayer — with a variety of hostile measures. In February, they ended Disney’s long-held ability to self-govern its 25,000-acre resort as if it were a county by giving Mr. DeSantis control over government services at the resort.

It was soon discovered that the previous, Disney-controlled board had approved development contracts that lock in a growth plan for the resort. An effort to void those agreements has since resulted in dueling lawsuits, with Disney suing Mr. DeSantis and his allies in federal court and the governor’s tax district appointees returning fire in state court.

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