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PolitiFact FL: Disney cancels plans for Florida campus amid feud with Ron DeSantis

A statue of Walt Disney and Micky Mouse stand near the Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. on Jan. 9, 2019.
John Raoux
Associated Press
A statue of Walt Disney and Micky Mouse stand near the Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. on Jan. 9, 2019.

[WLRN has partnered with PolitiFactto fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning organization seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.]

The Walt Disney Co. pulled the plug on a nearly $1 billion regional headquarters it had planned for Orlando amid a yearlong dispute with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. By walking away, Disney forwent a chance to earn up to $570 million, a historic sum, in tax credits.

The tax credit deal became one of several Disney-related criticisms from DeSantis' expected rivals for the GOP presidential nomination; DeSantis is expected to announce a run for president, perhaps as soon as next week.

In a recent interview, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley criticized DeSantis for having "thin skin" and spending taxpayer dollars on a lawsuit with Disney after years of playing nice.

"He passed the largest corporate subsidies in Florida history for Disney in Florida right before this," Haley said on a podcast, referring to then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s opposition to a policy barring classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.

By walking away from its project, the "record" tax credits Disney was approved for are null and void.

Here’s what we know about the deal Florida was going to offer Disney.

What was Disney’s Florida project?

Disney had planned to invest as much as $864 million to build a regional headquarters in Orlando, Florida’s Lake Nona community and move at least 2,000 employees, with average salaries of $120,000, from California.

If the project had been completed, Disney would have been eligible for up to $570 million in tax credits from Florida, over 20 years.

Before the cancellation, it had appeared the project was moving forward, albeit on a delayed schedule.

READ MORE: Walt Disney ditches $1 billion central Florida building effort

A Disney spokesperson told the Orlando Sentinel in June 2022 that the project’s finish date had been pushed back about three years to 2026 to accommodate construction delays and give more flexibility to employees who are relocating. A company spokesperson denied the delay was because of Disney’s conflict with DeSantis.

More recently, in April, the Orlando City Council approved the proposal to build Disney’s new regional headquarters in the Lake Nona community. The 1.8 million-square-foot campus would have consisted of eight buildings, three parking garages, a central plant and a surface parking lot for visitors, according to the proposal.

But on May 18, Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney parks, experiences and products, sent an email to employees, announcing the project was canceled.

"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," D’Amaro wrote in the email.

While not addressed explicitly in the email, The New York Times reported that Disney’s feud with DeSantis factored into the company’s decision to cancel the Lake Nona project.

How the tax incentive worked

Florida offers several tax incentives for businesses with the hope that those businesses will boost the economy. Under the capital investment tax credit, businesses with projects that hit certain spending levels can receive an annual credit to lower their corporate income tax.

To qualify, the company’s project must be a corporate headquarters or be related to sectors such as renewable energy, information technology or financial services. The company must also invest at least $25 million for the project and create at least 100 new jobs in the state.

Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity, which the governor oversees, certifies companies for participation in tax credit programs. The state Department of Revenue, which the governor and his Cabinet oversee, then determines the tax credit amount and distributes the subsidies to businesses.

The Department of Economic Opportunity certified Disney’s project for a capital investment tax credit in February 2020, according to the department’s incentives portal. It doesn’t offer further details.

When Disney applied for the credit, the Department of Economic Opportunity was led by Ken Lawson, a DeSantis appointee. After Lawson resigned in August 2020, DeSantis named Dane Eagle, a former Republican state lawmaker, as the department secretary.

Disney qualified for the tax credit with its plans to establish a new regional hub in Orlando’s Lake Nona community, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

If paid out in full, this $570 million tax credit would be the largest documented corporate tax incentive the Florida government has approved for a single project, according to data from Good Jobs First, a research center that tracks government tax credits and subsidies for corporations.

Before Disney’s Lake Nona project was canceled, the Florida government had not issued any tax credits to Disney for the project, Rose Hebert, a Department of Economic Opportunity spokesperson, told PolitiFact.

A spokesperson for DeSantis said the decision was "unsurprising" given the project’s delays and Disney’s "financial straits, market cap and declining stock price."

Jerry Demings, mayor of Orange County, which includes Orlando, issued a statement calling Disney’s decision to scrap the campus "unfortunate."

"However, these are the consequences when there isn’t an inclusive and collaborative work environment between the state of Florida and the business community. We will continue to work closely with our valued partners at Disney," he wrote.

Our Sources

Sara Swann is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.
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