Disney Cancels Plan to Develop $1B Business Complex in Lake Nona

Dawn Kitterman
ORLANDO  — Walt Disney Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro told employees last week that the company is canceling plans to build a nearly $1 billion office complex in Florida which would have added more than 2,000 jobs to the state.

In an email Thursday, D'Amaro informed employees that the company had decided not to move forward with the Orlando project due to "new leadership and changing business conditions." The announcement comes amidst a widening feud and legal battle between Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Walt Disney World Company. 

The plans for the massive office complex and expansion in Florida were announced in 2021 under Walt Disney Company’s then-CEO Bob Chapek. The regional campus was slated to house some of the theme park division’s administrative offices and roughly 2,000 cast members, "Imagineers," and other company employees with average salaries north of $120,000. At the time, reports of the company's planned investment—currently estimated at over $1 billion—would not only bring significant changes to the operations of Disney but was also widely anticipated to spawn significant housing and commercial growth within the developing Lake Nona planned community. 

Last year, former Disney CEO Chapek took a public position at the encouragement of Disney staff against Gov. DeSantis’ proposed state law which sought to ban discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools for students in kindergarten through third grades. Chapek’s public position on the matter elicited what the company has categorized as "retaliation" from the state government when, shortly after, DeSantis signed legislation to strip Disney of its special tax status, attempting to cut off the corporation’s ability to self-govern the roughly 2,525,000 acres where its Walt Disney World theme park complex is located. 

Late in 2022, Chapek stepped down as the company’s CEO, and Bob Iger, who preceded Chapek as CEO of The Walt Disney Company, returned to the role of leading the media giant. 

Earlier this year, Florida lawmakers voted to restructure the 50-year-old Reedy Creek Improvement District, giving DeSantis the power to appoint members to the special district's governing board. However, before the new board could be officially installed, Disney reached a last-minute deal outlining the scope of development in the district and giving Disney the right to review any changes to properties within its limits—largely preserving its development rights. 

Following state officials’ attempt to void the governing authorities provided by the special development district, the feud climbed to new levels when Disney filed a lawsuit against  Florida and accused DeSantis of  "a targeted campaign of government retaliation." 

Thursday’s announcement that Disney had canceled its planned development at Lake Nona came just a week after Disney CEO Iger made statements that the ongoing dispute with Florida’s governor was giving the company pause over future investment in the state. 

NPR reported that during a conference call with analysts, Iger rhetorically asked, "Does the state want us to invest more, employ more people, and pay more taxes, or not?"

In his email to Disney employees announcing the nixing of the previously planned business complex in Lake Nona, Disney's Chairman D’Amaro wrote, "Given the considerable changes that have occurred since the announcement of this project, including new leadership and changing business conditions, we have decided not to move forward with construction of the campus." 

"I remain optimistic about the direction of our Walt Disney World business. We have plans to invest $17 billion and create 13,000 jobs over the next ten years. I hope we’re able to do so," D’Amaro’s emailed memo noted. 

Walt Disney World president Jeff Vahle sent a letter later on Thursday publicly confirming the news.

As of Friday afternoon, DeSantis hadn't commented on Disney's announcement, but the governor’s Press Secretary Jeremy Redfern hinted in a statement that the state had doubts that the Lake Nona project would be coming to fruition.

"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," Redfern said in a statement. 

In February this year, Disney announced a sweeping restructuring plan that would cut 7,000 jobs amid the company's mounting losses.

On Wednesday, the day prior to Disney’s announcement it would cancel its planned Lake Nona complex project, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed four bills impacting LGBTQ individuals in the state—including a measure expanding the education bill criticized by Disney’s former CEO Chapek. Critics have coined the controversial legislation the "Don’t Say Gay" bill. 

House Bill 1069, expands upon the initial bill and places additional restrictions on lessons about "human sexuality" in grades K-3, up to 8th grade, with additional restrictions up through high school. The new law will take effect on July 1. 

LGBTQ advocacy groups have fiercely opposed the bills, arguing that they target the LGBTQ community and individuals' freedom while only further marginalizing vulnerable children. Some have criticized the measures as culture war fodder and a part of the governor's political strategy to secure the Republican presidential nomination. Although DeSantis has not officially announced his bid for the White House, a formal announcement appears likely in the coming weeks. 

Early Wednesday morning, the same day the governor signed the bills into law, an anti-gay hate message was programmed onto a digital traffic sign near Lake Nona in Orlando. The Orlando Sentinel reported Thursday that the Orlando Police Department was investigating the incident to identify the person, or persons, who programmed the lighted traffic sign at Lake Nona Boulevard and Nemours Parkway to read, "KILL ALL GAYS." 

Reader Comments
MAY 22, 2023  •  Disney already planned to cancel this awhile ago but they just played it to the political angle
MAY 22, 2023  •  Like the law of physics, for every action their is an opposite and equal reaction. Perhaps DeSantis forgot this. His actions have consequences. Unfortunately bigotry appears to be one of them.
Coco Hanson
MAY 21, 2023  •  Poor DeSantis kids they’ll never get to go to Disney. he is such a POS thank God Disney is giving him shit back
James F Tierney
MAY 21, 2023  •  As the saying goes, “ everyone is entitled to an opinion.” The true problem is if you disagree you are called a liberal, socialist, lefty etc. The fact remains that Disney is important to Florida in many ways whether economically or socially. Governor DeSantis is not.
MAY 21, 2023  •  Also let me add that if the intent of this billion dollar office project was to transfer disney employees from california to Florida many of us are happy it fell through!!We don't need them here.
MAY 21, 2023  •  It's obvious that Disney's financial situation is the main reason for this so they shouldn't twist things for their advantage! Maybe they should have stayed out of politics and concentrated on looking out for the welfare of children instead of promoting the teaching and exposing of grammar school kids to sex.
MAY 21, 2023  •  This project has been on again off again since it was announced for a number of reasons mainly because so many Disney employees who would have had to relocate from California didn't want to move to central Florida. This uncertainty preceded any dispute with the Governor and a majority of Floridians and has been ongoing. Iger is just using this inevitable announcement to his political advantage. This really has nothing to do with the current dispute between our state and the Mouse House! It's disappointing the BH has decided to jump on the Media's liberal band wagon.
MAY 21, 2023  •  All this rhetoric and villianizing of groups or "types" of is a very dangerous political game to play. Maybe the reason Desantis doesn't like history classes so much is because history shows exactly the sorts of atrocities humans can committ on one another all while screaming "groomers!!" and "pedophiles!!!" This is not a new script. The ceo was right to speak out last year. More people should be speaking out because we are headed down a very dark path that history has already shown us to treacherous and deadly.
MAY 21, 2023  •  …. So they cut 7000 jobs in February, and this new build adds 2000 jobs….. sounds like a net loss of 5000 jobs….
MAY 21, 2023  •  Who cares, Disney can just go away, no problem.
Cat L
MAY 21, 2023  •  Respectfully, none of the developed land is going to be rewilded when developers have such a fervor to build housing for retirees moving down here. And additionally, there have been many signs that business agreements with the state will not be honored, which demotivates other companies from coming to Florida.
MAY 21, 2023  •  Good! Let Disney close down and start making our state better! My family moved to Orlando long before Disney started; and it ruined the entire central Florida area. Traffic and roadways will never catch up. Concrete has replaced so many rural areas eradicating the once beautiful countryside with all its wildlife.