Disney’s delayed move to Orlando leaves some staffers confused, analysts say

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Company: Walt Disney Co
Total compensation: $32,464,293

Salary: $2,500,000
Stock awards: $10,215,466
Short-term incentives: $14,330,000

(Walt Disney Studios Alameda Entrance (CC BY-SA 4.0) by Coolcaesar)

The political struggle over the so-called “don’t say gay” law and the reluctance of some Southern California-based employees to move to Florida likely are behind the Walt Disney Co.’s decision to delay setting up its Lake Nona campus by more than three years, theme park industry analysts said Thursday.

Disney revealed Wednesday that its plan to move 2,000 high-paying jobs in its Parks, Experiences and Products division to Orlando in late 2022 was not going to happen until 2026. The majority of the jobs relocating are reportedly within Imagineering, Disney’s main creative design division.

Spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler revealed the new date Wednesday, saying the company’s sole reasons for the change were to give employees more time and to accommodate the construction timeline for the new offices.

She said Disney’s ongoing dispute with Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature over the “don’t say gay” law was unrelated to the delay.

Workers have been moving to Florida on a rolling basis, and many are already in Orlando. Additional employees have decided to move to Florida following the deadline extension because it gives them more flexibility, Wahler said Thursday.

“Where possible, we are aligning the relocation period with the campus completion,” she said in a statement.

Industry analysts, many of whom have contacts within Disney and Imagineering specifically, offered differing reasons why the company extended the deadline, but all agreed that it is causing confusionfor employees unclear about the path ahead.

Dennis Speigel, founder and CEO of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati, said he believes the delay is not “clearly due to construction,” as Disney said, because extending a construction timeline by such a length of time is unusual.

Instead, he thinks it is “a reaction to Florida and DeSantis.” He spoke with Disney employees after the announcement — including people planning to move to Florida — who believe the same.

Employees are “not being told everything that’s going on” related to the delay, Speigel said. Those he talked to also think it is Disney’s way of pushing back against the state over plans to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District after the company’s opposition to the law that limits instruction about sexual orientation in public schools.

One contact suggested to Speigel that internal progress on the move abruptly stopped after DeSantis signed the law eliminating the district in late April, Speigel said.

“[There’s] a lot of saber-rattling going on, kind of, ‘we’ll show you,’” Speigel said. “And Florida and everybody, they need jobs.”

Disney’s decision to postpone was logical with the fate of the district still unknown, he said. Progress on the move will likely continue once that issue is resolved, possibly expediting the 2026 goal.

“From the grander scheme of things, I’m not sure it’s a bad reaction,” Speigel said. “It’s an unfortunate reaction, I think, to what’s going on and why it has to happen.”

Len Testa, who runs the theme-park planning website Touring Plans, offered another perspective for the delay based on conversations with employees: housing costs.

Though Disney’s feud with DeSantis could have factored into the decision, the company also realizes employees would have a hard time moving to Florida during a challenging housing market and wanted to give them more breathing room, he said.

“The fact that moving right now would be that big of a pay cut is a lot for a lot of people,” Testa said. “So I think just by delaying this, Disney is hoping that the interest rates in the housing market cool off a bit and make that move more palatable.”

Bill Coan, a former Imagineer and CEO of Orlando-based ITEC Entertainment, also said he thought the delay was likely due to logistical challenges.

Wednesday’s announcement does not surprise him, given all the planning needed to move established offices and 2,000 jobs cross-country amid global construction issues and ongoing projects at Disney.

“They can’t just shut themselves down and move,” Coan said. “… So it’s logistics, but it’s also timing and the capacity to make sure everything is working smoothly.”

He speculated Disney could be using the delay to reassess how many they will have to hire in Orlando since “they might not have had the numbers that they needed” in moving current staff.

He does not know how many people decided to leave Disney due to the move but said there was “probably some leakage.” With the extended timeline, Disney has more time to focus on assisting current employees with the transition.

“I think it will go a long way to help them retain some of their talent,” Coan said.

Speigel said the uncertainty surrounding the new timeline could cause additional people to leave Disney and might slow work on some ongoing Imagineering projects.

During the height of the company’s furor with DeSantis over what’s officially called the Parental Rights in Education law, California Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted at Disney that the “door is open to bring those jobs back to California — the state that actually represents the values of your workers.”

Employees in Disney’s California offices staged a mass walkout in March to protest the company’s response to the Florida legislation, which LGBTQ+ advocates say is discriminatory.

Testa said he has heard only between a third to half of the Imagineering employees asked to relocate will go through with moving to Florida, meaning Imagineering could lose between 700 to 1,000 people.

Disney declined to say how many people have left the division because of the relocation. The company previously said it would help employees who chose not to relocate find other opportunities within Disney.

It appears to be honoring that promise, according to Testa.

“A number of people that I’ve talked to have been able to find alternate roles within the company,” Testa said.

Imagineers look ahead

Employees suspected the move would officially be delayed given Disney’s feud with Florida, Speigel said.

They understand the need for the pause but are still feeling unsettled after this week’s announcement, he said. While some are already working in Orlando, others were mid-move and had already sold their homes in California.

Testa’s Imagineering contacts told him they are feeling relieved.In extending the deadline, Disney is giving them more time to navigate the complicated process of uprooting their lives and careers in Southern California for another coast and culture, he and Coan said.

Having experienced Disney’s process of mass relocating employees firsthand, Coansaid he has faith the company is helping ease workers into the transition.

In 1990, hewas among a group of around 250 Imagineers Disney moved from Orlando to France to work on Disneyland Paris.

His position there was temporary, lasting about three years, but Disney went above and beyond in accommodating him and his wife in the move, he said. Its “sophisticated relocation staff” helped the couple determine where to live, extended their moving schedule and upped their budget based on their needs.

“When we bumped into the idea that we couldn’t quite find the home that was going to make my wife happy, Disney just stepped up and increased the budget and we managed to find something,” Coan said. “I think that’s going to be the case here.”

krice@orlandosentinel.com and @katievrice on Twitter

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