Disney cancels $1bn Florida theme park extension amid war with DeSantis

A months-long feud has boiled over into political and legal battles after the company publicly opposed the governor’s anti-LGBT+ agenda

Alex Woodward
Thursday 18 May 2023 20:50 BST

Related video: Ron DeSantis promises to retaliate against Disney for ‘Don’t Say Gay’ opposition

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The Walt Disney Company has pulled the plug on a $1bn office complex in Orlando, following a warning from Disney leadership that billions of dollars in projects were on the line after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis escalated his feud with the company.

The development scheduled for construction in the Orlando area was set to bring 2,000 jobs to the region, with 1,000 employees expected to be relocated from southern California.

In an email to employees on 18 May, Disney’s theme park and consumer products chair Josh D’Amaro pointed to “changing business conditions” for the cancellation of the 60-acre Lake Nona project, according to The New York Times, which first reported the move.

“I remain optimistic about the direction of our Walt Disney World business,” he added, noting that the company has still planned $17bn in projects over the next decade at its Disney World campus. “I hope we’re able to,” he said.

For years, Florida legislators and the governor’s office enjoyed a close relationship with the state’s largest taxpayers, among the state’s largest employers, which has wielded enormous political influence while bringing in billions of dollars to the state each year.

Now, the company and DeSantis allies are suing one another, following a year-long feud over opposition to what opponents have called Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law that boiled over into political and legal battles that could shape the company’s business in the state.

Moments after a board appointed by Mr DeSantis voted to strip the company’s control of its Florida park, Disney filed a federal lawsuit against the governor and state officials alleging a “targeted campaign of government retaliation” for “expressing a political viewpoint.”

The lawsuit follows the governor’s state takeover of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, now the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, made up of conservative activists and DeSantis loyalists, a move that followed Florida Republicans’ punitive measures against the company after its public opposition to the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Days later, the board voted to sue Disney in state court.

In March, Disney slammed the governor’s “anti-business” approach to the company, which Mr DeSantis has accused of advancing a “woke agenda” while his administration targets LGBT+ people and their families with sweeping laws to control public school education, healthcare access and speech.

The governor dissolved a decades-old municipal district that allowed Disney to control its own land use, zoning rules and public services, without putting a tax burden on Florida residents. In effect, Disney taxed itself to foot the district’s bill for its municipal needs.

“Does the state want us to invest more, employ more people, and pay more taxes, or not?” Disney CEO Bob Iger said on a conference call with analysts last week.

A statement from Disney said the company has decided to pull out of the new campus construction “given the considerable changes that have occurred since the announcement of this project, including new leadership and changing business conditions.”

The “Parental Rights in Education Act” – what opponents have called “Don’t Say Gay” – prohibits instruction of “sexual orientation or gender identity” from kindergarten through the third grade and any such discussion “that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” in other grades. The governor recently expanded the law to explicitly extend such restrictions to all grades.

Critics have warned that the broadly written law threatens to freeze classroom speech involving LGBT+ people and issues, from civil rights history lessons to discussion of LGBT+ students, school staff and their families.

Following passage of the Florida law, lawmakers across the US and in Congress have introduced similar legislation, including more than two dozen measures in current legislative sessions.

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