Disney CEO Wasn’t Bluffing: Robert Iger Cancels Plans for $1 Billion Office Complex in Orlando

 
Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger and Mickey Mouse

Xavier Collin/AP Images

Disney CEO Robert Iger wasn’t bluffing earlier this month when he said on an investors call that the company was rethinking its plans to increase its investments in Florida amid “retaliation” from Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Now Disney is cancelling plans to build a massive nearly $1 billion office complex in Orlando, costing the state more than 2,000 six-figure jobs.

DeSantis’ ongoing war with Mickey Mouse began just over a year ago, when then-CEO Bob Chapek issued a single press release objecting to the Parental Rights in Education bill (dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its critics) after it passed. Many other companies criticized the legislation in far harsher terms before it passed, and Disney didn’t actually do anything about the bill after that press release, but it was enough to trigger the ire of DeSantis, who is expected to launch a presidential campaign in the coming days.

What soon followed was a series of bills passed by the Florida Legislature at DeSantis’ direction, as he himself bragged in his book, that initially attempted to repeal the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), Disney’s special taxing district, outright, and then left RCID’s core structure intact, renamed it the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD), and took the authority to appoint the board members away from the Disney-affiliated landowners and gave that power to the governor.

It is important to note that RCID was not unique and not a tax break, contrary to misperceptions encouraged by DeSantis. There are over 1,800 special taxing districts in Florida, all passed with the consent of the district landowners in order to pay extra taxes for a designated purpose. RCID’s most recent annual budget was roughly $160 million in additional taxes that Disney pays to cover a vast array of services and infrastructure ranging from trash and recycling, landscaping, road and transportation construction and maintenance, fire and emergency services, water and sewer treatment, wetlands mitigation and other environmental protection, etc. Those extra taxes are paid to RCID in addition to the regular property taxes Disney pays to Orange and Osceola County, all while Disney does not ask the counties to provide those services and infrastructure.

In the company’s Q2 earnings call, Iger was asked about the dispute, calling it “plainly a matter of retaliation” that was a betrayal of the “terrific relationship” that Disney had had with Florida “for more than 50 years,” echoing language the Disney lawyers used in the federal lawsuit filed against DeSantis and his puppet board appointees.

As I have previously noted, it is not realistic to suggest that the company move Walt Disney World out of Florida, but Iger’s not-so-veiled threat to curtail the Mouse’s investments in the Sunshine State is “far more plausible,” as shown by how Iger concluded his answer:

We have a huge opportunity to continue to invest in Florida. I noted that our plans are to invest $17 billion over the next 10 years, which is what the state should want us to do. We operate responsibly. We pay our fair share of taxes. We employ thousands of people and, by the way, we pay them substantially above the minimum wage dictated by the state of Florida. We also provide them with great benefits and free education. So I’m going to finish what is obviously kind of a long answer by asking one question: Does the state want us to invest more, employ more people and pay more taxes, or not?

That threat is now starting to become real.

According to a report Thursday afternoon by The New York Times, Disney is cancelling its plans for the “Lake Nona Town Center,” which was to be built in the southeast area of Orlando:

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.

The Times report noted that D’Amaro had originally touted “Florida’s business-friendly climate” when announcing the project in 2021, but took a “notably different” tone in an email to employees Thursday, citing “changing business conditions.”

D’Amaro’s email also sounded a somber hope about the company’s future in Florida, mentioning the $17 billion currently designated for Walt Disney World construction projects over the next decade, writing, “I hope we’re still able to.”

DeSantis’ increasingly bitter battle with the Mouse “figured prominently into Disney’s decision to cancel the Lake Nona project,” the Times reported, according to two sources.

That matches with what several of my own sources — including former and current Disney and RCID employees — have told me over the past year, noting that the Lake Nona project had originally been planned to open in 2024, and while construction delays were a factor, the ongoing feud with DeSantis also contributed to the decision to pause employee relocations.

UPDATE 3:40 PM ET: Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried issued a statement provided to Mediaite lambasting DeSantis over Disney’s decision to pull the plug on the Lake Nona project, “quashed as a result of Ron DeSantis’ continued attacks on the company,” noting that “Disney is one of Florida’s largest employers, employing over 75,000 people in the state, has a $75.2 billion annual economic impact on Central Florida, and brings in $5.8 billion in additional state tax revenue.”

“Florida just lost 2,000 jobs and millions in additional revenue because of Ron DeSantis’ unhinged personal vendetta against Disney,” said Fried. “DeSantis has single-handedly and decidedly made Florida an anti-business state, not only with his continued attacks on companies that dare challenge his fascist policies, but also by forcing draconian laws that will decimate the workforce of the backbone industries of our state’s economy. Unfortunately, today’s news isn’t a shock for those of us who have been living through his reign of terror, and Floridians are already paying a high price.”

UPDATE 3:45 pm ET: Former President Donald Trump’s campaign swiftly responded to the report about Disney cancelling the Lake Nona project, with a post that gloated “RON DESANCTIMONIOUS GETS CAUGHT IN THE MOUSE TRAP,” and “The Culture Of Losing Continues.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), himself a frequent target of DeSantis’ verbal barbs, took his own victory lap, tweeting that the “2,000+ jobs” would be “welcomed back with open arms to the Golden State” and thanking Disney “for doing the right thing.”

UPDATE 5:15 pm ET: DeSantis’ press office issued a statement responding to the cancelled Lake Nona project that is “obviously a lie,” according to two sources with knowledge of the situation who spoke to Mediaite on condition of anonymity.

The DeSantis office statement claimed “[n]othing ever came of the project, and the state was unsure whether it would come to fruition,” attempting to frame it as a move to “cancel unsuccessful ventures.”

“It was definitely a factor,” said one source regarding DeSantis’ retaliatory actions and the effect on Disney’s decision-making about the Lake Nona complex. Pandemic-related construction challenges had delayed the project from its original timeline, but “it would be silly to suggest [DeSantis] wasn’t a factor” in the decision to cancel entirely.

“The political climate in this state didn’t help,” the source added.

Regarding the DeSantis press office claims that “nothing ever came” of the project, the source replied, “That’s obviously a lie,” pointing out there was “a lot of paperwork indicating this was progressing,” meaning the permits and other real estate development filings submitted to the city of Orlando.

This was yet “another example of their office not paying attention to land use filings in Central Florida,” the source said, referring to the move by the RCID board to enter into a development agreement with Disney right before the takeover by DeSantis’ CFTOD puppet board — an agreement that was publicly announced, voted on at a public RCID meeting, and recorded in the public county records for months before anyone on DeSantis’ team caught wind of it.

“It’s a pattern,” said the source, where they don’t pay attention to what’s happening “and then lie about it.”

A second source with knowledge of the situation confirmed there had been ongoing chatter that DeSantis’ actions were a factor in the decision to cancel the Lake Nona project, and that it had been moving forward.

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Sarah Rumpf joined Mediaite in 2020 and is a Contributing Editor focusing on politics, law, and the media. A native Floridian, Sarah attended the University of Florida, graduating with a double major in Political Science and German, and earned her Juris Doctor, cum laude, from the UF College of Law. Sarah's writing has been featured at National Review, The Daily Beast, Reason, Law & Crime, Independent Journal Review, Texas Monthly, The Capitolist, Breitbart Texas, Townhall, RedState, The Orlando Sentinel, and the Austin-American Statesman, and her political commentary has led to appearances on the BBC, MSNBC, NewsNation, Fox 35 Orlando, Fox 7 Austin, The Young Turks, The Dean Obeidallah Show, and other television, radio, and podcast programs across the globe.