Walt Disney Company cancels relocation of thousands of California workers to Orlando's Lake Nona

Disney announced Thursday that the company will no longer relocate its Imagineers, cast members, and employees from California to Florida citing changes in "new leadership" and "changing business conditions."

In an email to its team members obtained by FOX 35, Disney said they've decided not to move forward with the construction of its Lake Nona Campus. The company said they will individually speak to employees who have already made the move to Florida — where they may have a possibility of moving back to California. 

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In a statement, the President of Walt Disney World Resort said:

"Today, you may have heard the news that Disney is no longer moving forward on the construction of a new campus in the thriving and growing community of Lake Nona in Orlando. Since we first announced this project, several dynamics have changed, including a change in company leadership and evolving economic and business conditions."

The company had purchased a 60-acre plot in Lake Nona, a planned community south of the Orlando International Airport, where intended to build three parking garages and eight office buildings up to seven stories high. Now those investments are going down the drain.

Ray Lopez, the owner of Keller Williams Lake Nona, said some local businesses in Lake Nona had been making plans and changing practices in preparation for the influx of Disney employees.  "The infrastructure was getting ready to accommodate this many more people into this local area. It’s definitely going to hurt."

Disney had also asked 2,000 employees to relocate from the West Coast to southeast Orlando as part of this plan. "Disney was asking them to make the move – or, if you don’t make the move, you don’t have a job," said Lopez.

The original move in 2021 was no small ask. Now, Disney said it will be working with employees to move them back to California. "People that have mortgages, have mortgages at 3% or under," said Lopez. "So if a company is asking you to move or relocate, you’re selling your house with a low mortgage, and you’re typically buying a house with a – what’s normal now is 6 or 6.5%."

Lots of people have speculated that Disney's statement about "evolving economic and business conditions," was corporate speak for "We at Disney don’t like Florida’s Governor."  

Commenting on the decision, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings told FOX 35 News, "These are the consequences when there isn’t an inclusive and collaborative work environment between the State of Florida and the business community."

Marketing Professor Mark Johnston said regardless of the reason for the decision, this is not positive news. "Two-thousand people moving in has a pretty big economic impact, not just for Lake Nona, but also Orlando as a whole."

However, with Disney just executing 7,000 layoffs, he isn’t so sure the governor is solely to blame. "Disney has had a pretty tough year in terms of sales, in terms of gross revenue. They’ve seen a lot of problems with some of their entertainment content."

Gov. Ron DeSantis also gave no sign he thinks he played a role in the canceled plans. On Thursday, DeSantis issued a response to Disney's announcement. "Disney announced the possibility of a Lake Nona campus nearly two years ago. Nothing ever came of the project, and the state was unsure whether it would come to fruition," DeSantis said. "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."

A statement issued by Florida Senator Linda Stewart on Disney's decision to suspect its Lake Nona development said: 

"While the news from Disney this afternoon comes as a disappointment, it should not be viewed as a reflection on Lake Nona. All industries continuously evaluate environments and economic factors when undertaking such large relocations, and today's announcement is understandable given the business climate we are in as a state."

This decision comes as conflicts continue to rise between Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Walt Disney World. Recently on May 5, Gov. DeSantis signed a measure aimed at overturning controversial development agreements involving Walt Disney World. 

A bill-signing announcement came after DeSantis said lawmakers had "acted appropriately" as he feuds with the entertainment giant. 

The feud stems from Disney opposing a 2022 law that restricts instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in schools. The bill DeSantis signed (SB 1604) seeks to nullify agreements reached by Disney and the former Reedy Creek Improvement District board shortly before the board was replaced by DeSantis appointees. 

In 2021, Disney announced the relocation of 2,000 jobs from California to Florida at Orlando's Lake Nona community which was slated to take over the following 18 months. 

On June 16, 2022, Disney said the timeline to move its employees to Lake Nona would be delayed from 2022 until 2026. In a statement, Disney said:

"While a growing number of our employees, who will ultimately work at the campus, have already made the move to Central Florida, we also want to continue to provide flexibility to those relocating, especially given the anticipated completion date of the campus is now in 2026." 

News of the delay came following Gov. Ron DeSantis' and Republican lawmakers voted to get rid of Disney's decades-old special tax district which was formerly known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District. 

Still, Lopez said Florida is the number one, fastest-growing state in the nation, and that even with Disney scrapping its plans, people are coming here regardless, and the economy is in good shape.