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Orlando Sentinel
Orlando Sentinel
Katie Rice

Disney delays moving 2,000 jobs to Orlando amid ‘don’t say gay’ clash with DeSantis

Amid the feud with Gov. Ron DeSantis over the so-called “don’t say gay” law, the Walt Disney Co. has delayed for more than three years plans to move about 2,000 high-paying jobs to Orlando, Florida, from California.

Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler said Wednesday the expected opening date for the Lake Nona campus was pushed to 2026 to “give people more time” and accommodate the construction timeline for the new offices. A Disney representative previously told the Orlando Sentinel the offices were expected to be operating in Orlando by December 2022.

The news follows tension between Disney and DeSantis that began in March over the company’s response to Florida’s “don’t say gay” law and has continued since. DeSantis signed laws to dissolve Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District and void Disney’s exemption under social media censorship legislation.

Some conservatives called for boycotts of the company in early April, though public calls for protest were short-lived.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, attributed the decision to Disney’s battle with Florida leaders over what is officially called the Parental Rights in Education legislation, saying “these culture wars have an economic cost.”

The law prohibits instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and in higher grades whenever such lessons are not considered “age appropriate.” LGBTQ+ organizations and advocates have said the law perpetuates discrimination and voiced concerns it could have a chilling effect on teachers and students.

“We’ve made the point all along, during debate on this bill, that attacking LGBTQ+ people ... is not only just bad politics or ‘culture wars,’ but it’s bad for the economy,” Eskamani said.

“It might be good for DeSantis’ base, but at the end of the day, top talent does not want to call a state that supports these policies home,” she added. “And so this is absolutely an illustration of that point that we’ve been making this entire time.”

Wahler did not comment when asked if the battle between Disney and DeSantis had caused the delay.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Disney is poised to receive tax breaks totaling over $570 million by moving more than 2,000 jobs in its Parks, Experiences and Products division to Lake Nona. The average salary for the relocating positions is $120,000.

Around 90% of the affected jobs are in Imagineering, the company’s main creative design division, Disney analyst Jim Hill told the Orlando Sentinel in November.

This is the first time Disney has confirmed an updated timeline for the Lake Nona move in recent months, though since-deleted job listings posted in May hinted at a possible delay.

A May 3 post on the Disney Careers website advertised an Imagineering job to be based in Glendale, California, that was described as part of a team that would relocate to Orlando “in late 2024.” The listing, seeking an executive for the new experience development team, is no longer accessible on the website.

Another former posting, seeking a technology studio executive for Imagineering, was listed as a hybrid position based in Orlando and Lake Buena Vista. It had the same notice of relocation.

Disney did not respond when asked about the job postings at the time.

The company is positioned to invest up to $864 million in building the regional hub in Lake Nona. A company associated with Walt Disney World paid over $46 million for 60 acres near Lake Nona’s Medical City last year in a deal that would allow Disney to build 1.8 million square feet of office space.

Current employees with jobs slated for relocation to Florida were informed on a rolling basis last year, with the final group notified by Nov. 1. They had three months to decide whether to move, and Disney said it would provide relocation assistance to affected employees.

But employees, especially those within Imagineering, appeared to be resistant to the cross-country trek.

According to people with Imagineering contacts, including a former employee and Hill, worker morale was low after the transition was announced. They said Disney stood to lose a “large number” of affected employees, especially veteran Imagineers with longstanding ties to California.

In December, former Imagineering President Bob Weis stepped down from his leadership role to a California-based position within the division. At the time, a spokeswoman said his decision was not due to Imagineering’s move to Florida.

Theme park industry experts appear hopeful that the Lake Nona campus opening will offer more jobs to graduates of local theme park design and management programs and attract international talent to Orlando.

The themed entertainment industry has centralized in the Orlando area in recent years, with organizations such as the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions moving its headquarters here and themed entertainment companies who work with major theme parks increasingly announcing the openings of new Central Florida offices.

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