Disney Scraps $1 Billion Orlando Campus Plan After Feud with Florida Governor Over LGBTQ+ Rights

The Walt Disney Company has announced that it is scrapping its $1 billion plan to develop a new Orlando campus that would employ 2,000 people.[0] The decision comes after a year-long clash between the massive company and the state of Florida, which began when company executives spoke out against Republican-sponsored legislation that prohibited discussion of homosexuality and gender issues in public schools.[1] The disagreement snowballed, with Governor Ron DeSantis threatening a litany of actions against Disney, such as building a prison near the theme park.

Disney filed a lawsuit against DeSantis and his newly-appointed board members in late April, saying that the governor was targeting Disney in a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint.” The tensions between Disney and DeSantis began after the entertainment giant opposed a law that prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.[2]

The announcement of the cancellation of the Lake Nona project comes after Disney’s vocal opposition to DeSantis’ parental rights law. Although not directly mentioned in the email, The New York Times revealed that Disney’s clash with DeSantis played a role in the cancellation of the Lake Nona venture. Disney and the state of Florida had a fallout when Disney spoke out against the Parental Rights in Education Law. This law prohibits any discussion on sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms for young students. The law is commonly referred to as “don’t say gay” by critics.[3]

In February 2023, DeSantis’s authority over Disney was strengthened as he was granted the ability to personally select board members responsible for managing Disney World’s government services by state lawmakers.[4] According to the Orlando Sentinel, the board member Ron Peri stated that the recently appointed members selected by the governor were unable to assume their responsibilities as the previous board members had signed a contract restricting the board’s authority to only maintaining “roads and basic infrastructure.” This contract was signed on Feb. 27.[4]

Disney has taken a more assertive approach in their counterattack, particularly since last autumn when Bob Iger returned from retirement to reclaim the CEO title from Bob Chapek, who had previously opposed the Florida legislation.[5] At the beginning of this year, DeSantis declared with pride that he was removing the board of Disney’s unique tax district.[5] However, upon the reconvening of the board approved by DeSantis, it was discovered that the previous board had sneakily approved a measure that would restrict the authority of their successors.[5] The disagreement between the two committees is currently being litigated.[5] Disney filed a lawsuit against DeSantis in April, claiming that he engaged in a deliberate campaign of government retaliation. DeSantis’ motives seem to be purely driven by political revenge and are not well concealed, making Disney’s case against him appear strong.[5]

Against that backdrop, Disney CEO Bob Iger has called DeSantis “anti-business” and touted the company’s sizable economic investment in the state.[1] During a recent investor call, Iger suggested that potential corporate investments in Florida could be at risk.[1] Iger questioned whether the state desires for us to increase investments, hire additional staff, and contribute more towards taxes.[6] Disney CEO Robert Iger adopted a foreboding tone during an earnings call last week that echoed the escalating attacks from DeSantis against the company. Iger’s question was a straightforward warning shot: does the state want Disney to invest more, employ more people, and pay more taxes, or not?[7]

Although some argue that politics played a part in the decision, the Governor maintains that the company’s financial struggles, with a decreasing market capitalization and stock price, made it inevitable for them to reorganize their operations and terminate unprofitable projects. DeSantis’ legal team filed a motion in the First Amendment lawsuit Friday asking that U.S. District Judge Mark Walker be disqualified from presiding over the case on the basis that Walker is biased against DeSantis.[8]

The recent abandonment of the development plan marks the newest development in an ongoing conflict between DeSantis and the Walt Disney Co. The discord began after company executives voiced their opposition to GOP-backed laws that barred any mention of gender and homosexuality matters in public schools.[2] The disagreement escalated rapidly as DeSantis made a series of threats against Disney, including the construction of a prison in close proximity to the theme park.

Almost two years ago, Disney made an announcement about the potential establishment of a campus in Lake Nona.[2] Nothing ever came of the project, and the state was unsure whether it would come to fruition,” Jeremy Redfern, press secretary for Gov.[9] Ron DeSantis, said in a prepared statement.[10] Considering the financial difficulties, decrease in market capitalization and the decline of their stock price, it is reasonable for the company to reorganize their business operations and terminate unprofitable endeavors.

The feud between Disney and the state of Florida has escalated over the past year following Disney’s vocal opposition to DeSantis’ parental rights law (known colloquially as the “Don’t Say Gay” law).

0. “Disney wipes out 2000 Florida jobs. Surprised? | Letters to the editor” South Florida Sun Sentinel, 21 May. 2023, https://www.sun-sentinel.com/2023/05/21/disney-wipes-out-2000-florida-jobs-surprised-letters-to-the-editor

1. “Disney cancels nearly $1 billion Florida campus amid DeSantis feud” The Washington Post, 19 May. 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2023/05/18/disney-florida-desantis-lake-nona

2. “Disney cancels new Florida campus development amid DeSantis feud” Axios, 18 May. 2023, https://www.axios.com/2023/05/18/disney-cancels-florida-campus-development-desantis-feud

3. “DeSantis claims federal judge handling Disney lawsuit made impartial statements in favor of Disney.” Orlando Sentinel, 19 May. 2023, https://www.orlandosentinel.com/2023/05/19/desantis-asks-federal-court-to-disqualify-judge-in-disney-case

4. “Where the Disney v. DeSantis Case Stands” TIME, 21 May. 2023, https://time.com/6281591/disney-desantis-timeline-case

5. “Mickey Mouse Is Starting to Get Revenge on Ron DeSantis” New York Magazine, 18 May. 2023, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2023/05/disney-is-starting-to-get-revenge-on-ron-desantis.html

6. “Disney cancels plans for $1 billion Florida campus” NPR, 18 May. 2023, https://www.npr.org/2023/05/18/1176931662/disney-cancels-plans-for-1-billion-florida-campus

7. “Ron DiSaster Loses $1 Billion Disney Project Days Before 2024 Announcement” The New Republic, 18 May. 2023, https://newrepublic.com/post/172833/ron-desantis-loses-1-billion-disney-project

8. “Ron DeSantis’ legal team of conservative all-stars tries to have Obama-appointed judge kicked off of Disney case” Law & Crime, 22 May. 2023, https://lawandcrime.com/high-profile/ron-desantis-legal-team-of-conservative-all-stars-tries-to-have-obama-appointed-judge-kicked-off-of-disney-case/

9. “Expert: Disney could pull more investments if Florida keeps course | WUSF Public Media” WUSF Public Media, 19 May. 2023, https://wusfnews.wusf.usf.edu/politics-issues/2023-05-19/disney-expert-asks-florida-doesnt-change-tune-company-pull-more-investments

10. “Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office, Orlando leaders sound off after Disney nixes Lake Nona campus” The Business Journals, 18 May. 2023, https://www.bizjournals.com/orlando/news/2023/05/18/disney-lake-nona-campus-state-local-leaders-react.html

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