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Disney told LA residents to move to Florida for a planned campus. They did, it was canceled and now they’re suing

By Meg James, Los Angeles Times
Published: June 24, 2024, 5:40am

Walt Disney Co. continues to face fallout from its scuttled plans to move 2,000 California employees to a proposed Florida campus — a controversial decision the company reversed last year following the return of Chief Executive Bob Iger.

In 2021, then-CEO Bob Chapek and parks and experiences chairman Josh D’Amaro announced plans to relocate employees supporting Disney theme park and resorts — including the celebrated Imagineers — to a planned $1-billion office park in the Lake Nona area of Orlando. The move was designed for Disney to take advantage of Florida tax credits, but the cross-country shift was deeply unpopular among employees who were asked to uproot their lives in Southern California.

Now some Disney employees are suing the company over the canceled relocation.

According to a lawsuit filed Tuesday against Disney in Los Angeles County Superior Court, numerous workers heeded the company’s calls, dutifully sold their homes in Los Angeles and moved to Central Florida.

Plaintiffs Maria De La Cruz and George Fong, both current Disney employees, alleged they were fraudulently induced to relocate to Florida by being led to believe that they would lose their jobs if they turned down the move. De La Cruz and Fong agreed to the relocation in November 2021. The lawsuit said Disney told affected employees they would have 90 days to “consider and make the decision that’s best for them.”

De La Cruz, a vice president of product design, sold her Altadena home in May 2022.

“Mr. Fong also sold his home, which was a particularly painful decision because it was the family home he had grown up in and inherited,” the lawsuit said. Fong is a creative director of product design; his family home was in Los Angeles.

But a year after they had sold their houses and moved, Disney canceled the project.

A Disney spokesman did not immediately provide comment.

The proposed class-action lawsuit seeks to represent “all current and former California Disney employees who relocated from California to Florida as a result of Disney’s announcement of the Lake Nona Project.” It seeks unspecified punitive damages.

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Initially, Disney envisioned it would eventually save money on the $1-billion Lake Nona development, due to lower worker costs in Florida. It was also drawn by tax credits offered by the state for relocating businesses.

But the project became swept up in Disney’s legal and culture war wranglings with Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a one-time presidential hopeful.

One month after Disney filed a federal 1st Amendment lawsuit against the Sunshine State and its governor, it pulled the plug on the Lake Nona development. (The legal matters have since been resolved, and Disney has affirmed its commitment to continue a massive Florida parks expansion). The project’s cancellation also coincided with significant cost cutting across the company.

Disney explained the reversal in a May 2023 statement: “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.”

Disney, at the time, acknowledged that some employees had already moved. The company said it would discuss the situation with individual employees, including making plans to move them back to California.

But compensation packages offered to affected employees by the company were inadequate, the lawsuit alleged.

The lawsuit said numerous Disney workers refused to make the move. Some remained employed by the company.

After Disney reversed its plans, home prices in the Orlando area fell, according to the lawsuit filed by attorney Jason S. Lohr of Lohr Ripamonti. Since 2022, home prices in Los Angeles climbed, and higher interest rates complicated the financial picture, the lawsuit said.

Fong has since bought a home in South Pasadena that has “considerably less square footage than his previous Los Angeles home.” De La Cruz is in the process of moving back to California.

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