The Walt Disney Co. announced Thursday that it was scrapping plans to build a new campus in central Florida and relocate 2,000 employees from Southern California to work in digital technology, finance and product development.
The decision follows a year of attacks from Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature because the company opposed a state law that bans classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. Disney filed a First Amendment lawsuit against DeSantis and other officials last month.
Disney had planned to build the campus about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the giant Walt Disney World theme park resort, but Josh D’Amaro, chairman of the parks, experiences and products division, said in a memo to employees that “new leadership and changing business conditions” prompted the company to abandon those plans.
“I remain optimistic about the direction of our Walt Disney World business,” D’Amaro said. “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.”
Disney and DeSantis have been engaged in a tug-of-war for more than a year that has engulfed the GOP governor in criticism as he prepares to launch an expected presidential bid in the coming weeks.
Also last week, Disney announced it was closing its popular Star Wars hotel in September. The hotel at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida opened in March 2022 and lets guests create and live out “Star Wars” immersive adventures. It costs nearly $5, 000 per couple for a two-night stay.
“This premium, boutique experience gave us the opportunity to try new things on a smaller scale of 100 rooms, and as we prepare for its final voyage, we will take what we’ve learned to create future experiences that can reach more of our guests and fans,” a company spokesperson said in a statement Friday.
Disney said on the hotel’s website that new bookings are “temporarily paused” but will resume May 26 for available voyages through Sept. 28-30. The company said it would reach out to guests who booked stays for that time or later to discuss alternatives.
Meanwhile, DeSantis has asked that a federal judge be disqualified from the First Amendment lawsuit filed by Disney against the Florida governor and his appointees, claiming the jurist’s prior statements in other cases have raised questions about his impartiality on the state’s efforts to take over Disney World’s governing body.
The Republican governor’s motion was filed a day after Disney announced that it was scrapping plans to build a new campus in central Florida and relocate 2,000 employees from Southern California to work in digital technology, finance and product development, amid an ongoing feud with DeSantis.
DeSantis’ motion said Walker referenced the ongoing dispute between his administration and Disney during hearings in two unrelated lawsuits before him dealing with free speech issues and fear of retaliation for violating new laws championed by DeSantis and Republican lawmakers. One of those was a First Amendment lawsuit filed by Florida professors that challenged a new law establishing a survey about “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on state campuses.
Walker, who was nominated to the federal bench in 2012 by President Barack Obama and is now chief judge of the district, tossed out that lawsuit on the grounds that the professors didn’t have standing to challenge the law championed by DeSantis and Florida lawmakers.
In the first case, Walker said, “What’s in the record, for example – is there anything in the record that says we are now going to take away Disney’s special status because they’re woke?”
In the second case, the judge said, “And then Disney is going to lose its status because-arguably, because they made a statement that run afoul-ran afoul of state policy of the controlling party,” according to the DeSantis motion.
The feud started after Disney, in the face of significant pressure, publicly opposed the state concerning lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades that critics called “Don’t Say Gay.”
As punishment, DeSantis took over Disney World’s self-governing district through legislation passed by lawmakers and appointed a new board of supervisors. Before the new board came in, the company signed agreements with the old board stripping the new supervisors of design and construction authority.
In response, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed legislation allowing the DeSantis-appointed board to repeal those agreements and made the theme park resort’s monorail system subject to state inspection, when it previously had been done in-house.
Disney filed the First Amendment lawsuit against DeSantis and Disney-appointed board last month in federal court in Tallahassee, and it landed in Walker’s court. The Disney-appointed board earlier this month sued Disney in state court in Orlando seeking to void the deals the company made with the previous board.
The creation of Disney’s self-governing district by the Florida Legislature was instrumental in the company’s decision in the 1960s to build near Orlando. Disney told the state at the time that it planned to build a futuristic city that would include a transit system and urban planning innovations, so the company needed autonomy. The futuristic city never materialized, however, and instead morphed into a second theme park that opened in 1982.
Photo: (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey, File)
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