Disney Imagineers Demand Halt of Mass Move to Florida After ’Don’t Say Gay’ Blow-Up (Exclusive)

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The creative team, which includes a major LGBTQ community, had been instructed to move to Florida, retire or quit

Bob Chapek's Rule of Disney ARTWORK
Bob Chapek's Rule of Disney ARTWORK (illustration credit: Nathan Arizona)

In the wake of the controversy at Disney over its response to Florida’s ”Don’t Say Gay” bill, a group of Imagineers — the legendary creative team behind theme parks, attractions, cruise ships and retail outposts — have asked embattled CEO Bob Chapek to reverse a decision to move their entire division to Florida, a move they consider unreasonable given what they have called the state’s “hateful legislation.”

In an open letter to Disney leadership this week, LGBTQ+ activists inside the company announced plans for a number of walk-outs and also demanded that the company stand down from the planned move of the division to Florida after the state passed legislation barring schools from discussing “sexual orientation or gender identity.” 

The letter demanded that Disney cease “any efforts to move employees to Florida office locations… Guaranteeing no employee will be terminated when denying relocation to Florida.”

The requirement to move, retire or quit has decimated the ranks of Disney’s storied creatives. Several told TheWrap that the Imagineers team — which they said numbered as many as 1,800 before the pandemic — has been reduced by more than half since last fall as a result of the relocation decision.

A Disney spokesperson told TheWrap: ”We understand relocating is always a big decision and deeply personal one and we have been committed to approaching this project and all who are impacted with the utmost care and compassion.”

The executive said that “not all decisions have been made,” around the move to Florida, and “the vast majority of senior leaders have already committed to moving with relocations taking place over the next several years.”

Those views are disputed by current and former Imagineers who spoke to TheWrap. Indeed, when the move was announced last summer, it was under the condition that employees commit to be in Florida in the next 18 months, which would put the deadline at early 2023.

The move to Florida had been roiling the Imagineering division since it was first announced and edicts were handed down from corporate offices in September. Imagineers and other members of the Disney Parks Experiences and Products (DPEP) umbrella — which includes publishing, consumer products, Shop Disney and games — were given just 90 days to decide whether they’d move to Florida.

Imagineers could refuse the transfer and lose their job at some time in the future, with severance; quit; or agree to move to Florida. More than one Imagineer told TheWrap that many people agreed to stay without any actual intention of moving. Luminaries like Joe Rohde and Jim Shull opted for retirement, and younger Imagineers like Kevin Lively chose to leave when given the 90-day ultimatum, according to Imagineers interviewed by TheWrap.

The policy move was largely informed by a $580 million tax break issued by the state of Florida, although Chapek surely noticed that California forced the closure of Disneyland in Anaheim for more than 400 days during the pandemic, when the company was badly hemorrhaging money. By comparison, Walt Disney World in Florida was only closed for a few months during the pandemic.

The Imagineers include a significant number of LGBTQ+ individuals who find the idea of moving to Florida an insult to their dignity, and an undue reward to a state that has rejected them.

“I feel like the move of California staff to Florida is a mistake. Not only because of attrition — we are losing tons of talent,” said a leading Imagineer who is gay and declined to be identified, noting that much of the talent being lost is diverse, minority and female, three groups historically underrepresented within Imagineering. “But it’s also interconnected to the culture of Florida.”

“I would love for Bob (Chapek) to see that this is a chance to come out and reverse something. This is his decision,” this Imagineer continued. “But it’s one where he would get a lot of credit for backtracking on a business decision and to say to Florida, ‘You can’t behave in one direction and expect to reap the benefits of the value we bring to the state.’ That’s what they deserve.”

A new corporate complex is being built in Lake Nona, just east of the Orlando International Airport. Previously, Imagineering had an outpost behind the Wonders of Life pavilion at EPCOT, which was built during the construction of EPCOT and has continued, to this day, to be a home for Imagineers working on various projects, including the updating of EPCOT.

Disney’s largest domestic theme park operation, Walt Disney World, with its four theme parks, two water parks and countless resort hotels, is located just outside Orlando, with a hub of its Disney Cruise Line in Port Canaveral (a little more than an hour from the theme parks).

The Disney spokesperson told TheWrap: “The roles moving to Lake Nona represent a small portion of the total roles at Imagineering (less than 30%).”

One former Imagineer disputed that this was possible, saying the move requires relocating headquarters, which has never been done before. The former Imagineer disputed the suggestion that there were more full-time Imagineers in Florida currently than in Glendale: “You’d have to be a contortionist to make that stick.”

The Disney spokesperson declined to say how many Imagineers currently remain at Disney, and how many have retired or quit as a result of the requirement to move to Florida.

TheWrap spoke to three individuals with knowledge of the Imagineering division who estimated the total number of Imagineers who chose to move to Florida to be around 300. The pre-COVID staff of around 1,800 was reduced by half due to canceled projects and furloughs during the pandemic. In a layoff of 28,000 employees during the summer of 2020, Disney announced 411 of them were Imagineers.

According to one former Imagineer, a manager said during the termination process that “80% of people in creative” would be dismissed. That would put the number of those remaining below 100.

This former Imagineer lamented that with all of the senior employees leaving, the “tribal knowledge” of Imagineering will be lost forever.

Disney Imagineers are a near-mythological group within Disney, a community of highly creative people, many with multidisciplinary backgrounds, who are responsible for all of the theme parks and the rides, shows, and attractions therein, as well as the Disney Cruise Line ships.

Walt Disney Imagineering is a division of the company that was started by Walt himself on the Disney lot in 1952, before moving to Glendale. The term Imagineer described the people who work for what was first known as WED Enterprises (named after Walt’s initials) and, in 1986, Walt Disney Imagineering or WDI. The Imagineers were immortalized in Leslie Iwerks’ six-part Disney+ documentary series “The Imagineering Story.”

Imagineering has historically had a history of prominent figures who have been a part of the LGBTQ+ community, notably first-generation Imagineer Bob Gurr, who designed the monorail and PeopleMover for Disneyland; second-generation Imagineer Tony Baxter and current Imagineers like Zach Riddley, who’s leading the “Project Gamma” overhaul of EPCOT.

When Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products Division, outlined the move in a letter to staff last July, he said the Florida campus would be the home base for “more than 2,000 Cast, Imagineers and employees.” This number includes all of DPEP, and newly hired Imagineers. (Currently all staff vacancies are meant to be back-filled by Florida candidates.)

The move to Florida was the final straw in a very contentious couple of years at Walt Disney Imagineering, starting with the COVID pandemic, which led to a historic global shutdown of the theme parks, followed by the Imagineers being furloughed and then many asked to resign or retire.

Chapek’s bungled response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation — first by not saying anything, then by explaining that the content the company produces is more important than any direct lobbying against the legislation, followed by sheepish apologies and commitments to listen and learn — reinvigorated a demand to reexamine and potentially reverse the decision to move Imagineering to Florida.

Moving Imagineering and DPEP to Florida puts the company back in the crosshairs of the ongoing culture war. Last week, California Governor Gavin Newsom tweeted at Chapek to keep DPEP here.

And the ongoing uproar over the company’s response to the Florida legislation gives these employees unexpected leverage. One Imagineer told TheWrap that he was happy with the progress they’ve already made. And while Chapek hasn’t responded yet, Imagineering is hopeful that he will.

“He’s listening,” the Imagineer told TheWrap.