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In 2020, Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity approved The Walt Disney Co. for a state tax credit program that would allow Disney to earn up to $570 million in tax credits over 20 years. Gov. Ron DeSantis oversees the agency.
Disney planned to build a regional headquarters in Orlando, Florida’s Lake Nona community for about 2,000 employees.
But construction never started, and on May 18, the company announced it was abandoning the idea amid its feud with DeSantis.
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.
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.
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.
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 the 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.
CORRECTION, May 22: We updated the story to clarify the independence of the Florida Cabinet from the governor.
Email interview, Kasia Tarczynska, senior research analyst for Good Jobs First, May 12, 2023
Email interview, Ashley Papagni, public information officer for the City of Orlando, May 17, 2023
Email interview, Rose Hebert, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, May 17, 2023
Email exchange, Disney spokesperson, May 18, 2023
Gov. Ron DeSantis statement, tweet, May 18, 2023
David Brody, tweet, May 9, 2023
Rumble, "America 180 with David Brody - EPISODE 13: Nikki Haley | Don’t Underestimate Her," May 9, 2023
Good Jobs First’s Subsidy Tracker, Florida summary of state and local awards, accessed May 16, 2023
Orlando Economic Partnership, "Top 75 Employers," July 2021
Enterprise Florida, "Capital Investment Tax Credit," accessed May 12, 2023
Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, "Incentives Portal," accessed May 12, 2023
Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, "2022 Incentives Report," accessed May 12, 2023
Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, "State of Florida Organizational Chart," accessed May 12, 2023
Orlando City Council, meeting minutes, April 3, 2023
Orlando City Council, Staff Report to the Development Review Committee - Lake Nona Parcel 20A Office Complex, March 9, 2023
Florida Governor’s Office, "Governor Ron DeSantis Appoints Twelve to the Florida Commission on Community Service," Oct. 15, 2021
Florida Governor’s Office, "Governor Ron DeSantis Appoints Seven to the Florida Cybersecurity Advisory Council," Sept. 21, 2021
PolitiFact, "Fact-checking 2024 presidential candidates, who’s running," March 1, 2023
PolitiFact, "Vivek Ramaswamy largely right on Ron DeSantis, Disney carve-out," May 4, 2023
PolitiFact, "‘Don’t say gay’ vs. ‘parental rights': Fact-checking claims about Florida’s HB 1557," March 23, 2022
Florida Legislature, HB 1557, March 8, 2022
Orlando Sentinel, "Disney Lake Nona campus plans feature a cluster of offices, central park," Jan. 24, 2023
Orlando Sentinel, "Disney delays moving 2,000 jobs to Orlando amid ‘don’t say gay’ clash with DeSantis," June 16, 2022
Tallahassee Democrat, "Disney was big contributor to Florida's DeSantis before public fight," April 29, 2022
Orlando Sentinel, "Disney may get a $570 million state tax break for its Lake Nona campus," July 21, 2021
Orlando Business Journal, "Disney to invest $864 million for campus in Orlando's Lake Nona community, seeks economic incentives," July 21, 2021
Tampa Bay Times, "Disney may get $570M in tax breaks for new Florida campus: report," July 22, 2021
CBS Miami, "Report: Walt Disney Co. In Line For $570M In Tax Breaks For New Florida Campus," July 22, 2021
The Washington Post, "How Ron DeSantis used Disney's missteps to wage war on corporate America," Oct. 19, 2022
The Associated Press, "Disney updates lawsuit against DeSantis to add new events," May 8, 2023
Orlando Business Journal, "Here's the latest on Florida's tax credit incentive for Disney's new Lake Nona campus despite ongoing state feud about Reedy Creek," June 6, 2022
Tallahassee Democrat, "Florida DEO Secretary Ken Lawson resigns amid unemployment mess," Aug. 31, 2020
NPR, "After protests, Disney CEO speaks out against Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' bill," March 10, 2022
Orange County Mayor Jerry L. Demings, statement, May 18, 2023