Disney Reveals Plans for Imagineering’s New Campus in Lake Nona, Florida

The corporate campus for Walt Disney Imagineering and other employees in the Parks & Resorts division will soon start to take shape. Thanks to newly-released plans, we now know that the move from California to Florida will proceed as planned, with details about the buildings and design of Disney’s Lake Nona campus coming to light.

Let’s start with a quick recap of the Lake Nona relocation “saga” thus far. Back in July 2021, the Walt Disney Company announced that a new regional hub in Orlando’s Lake Nona community would become home to more than 2,000 professional jobs relocating from California. At the time, the average wage for the positions was reported to be $120,000 annually.

The Lake Nona campus would become the main campus for Walt Disney Imagineering and others in the Disney Parks, Experiences and Products (DPEP) division. Initially, most of the DPEP positions based in Southern California that were not fully dedicated to Disneyland Resort or the international theme parks would be relocated to Florida.

Even with most white collar employees from Disney Parks & Resorts relocating, that would still only represent under 5% of Disney’s total jobs in California. That’s largely because the bulk of Disney’s Southern California workforce is frontline Cast Members at Disneyland Resort, with other white collar campuses for the corporate headquarters and Walt Disney Animation in Burbank, plus Pixar and Lucasfilm in Northern California, among other non-parks divisions in the state.

As of Summer 2021, the Lake Nona move was then expected to take place over the course of 18 months. The new campus would begin to open by December 2022, and be totally completed by 2023. Disney’s Lake Nona campus reportedly had been in the works since 2019. It is currently early 2023, and the “construction” site is still dirt.

“With Disney’s move and large investment in our community, we are delighted to welcome one of the world’s most recognized brands to Lake Nona. By choosing to build a new regional campus in Lake Nona, Disney will become part of this smart city where cutting-edge ideas turn into realities,” said Nick Beucher, President of Tavistock Development Company, the owner and developer of Lake Nona at the time of Disney’s original announcement.

“As someone who has moved with my family from California to Florida and back again, I understand that relocation is a big change, not only for the employee, but also for their families,” DPEP Chairman Josh D’Amaro wrote in a letter to employees. “Therefore, moving these roles to Central Florida will take place throughout the next 18 months, providing flexibility in timing to accommodate individual situations and needs.”

“This new project will create a dynamic environment to support our expanding business — a brand-new regional campus which will be built in the vibrant Lake Nona community of Orlando, Florida,” D’Amaro said in the letter. “With more than 60,000 Cast Members, Imagineers and employees, Central Florida has long been home to many of our businesses including the Walt Disney World Resort and most of our Disney Signature Experiences team.”

Lake Nona is a master-planned community developed by the aforementioned Tavistock Co., and is located southeast of Orlando International Airport. It is home to facilities like Nemours Children’s Hospital and University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine. For the Californians reading this, the closest comparison is probably Irvine and its eponymous real estate development company.

An up-and-coming area of Central Florida, Lake Nona is already home to a respected roster of companies including Beep Mobility Solutions, Chopra Global, Cisco, GE, GuideWell, Hitachi, Johnson & Johnson, KPMG, leAD, Limitless Minds, Lilium, Nemours, Signet, Siemens, Signature Flight Support/BBA Aviation, SimCom, U.S. Tennis Association, Veterans Affairs Administration, Verizon, and more.

According to public records in Orange County, the Disney-controlled Dynamic Campus LLC purchased real estate from Lake Nona Land Co. LLC, which is connected to Lake Nona developer Tavistock Development Co. for $46.4 million, or approximately $766,666 per acre back in Fall 2021.

Disney has projected it could spend up to $864 million to build the campus, but it would be eligible to claim more than $570 million in tax breaks over 20 years for the project from the state of Florida.

Site prep work began shortly thereafter in Late 2021, as Disney shifted its plans into high gear in order to meet its own (at the time) self-imposed 18 month timeline. Simultaneous to that, Imagineers and other employees were asked to inform the company as to whether they’d make the move.

If you follow any Imagineers on social media, you probably saw the ‘farewell’ posts as many opted to leave Imagineering rather than relocate to Florida. At least some of the undercurrent of hostility by creatives towards former CEO Bob Chapek stemmed from the way this relocation announcement was originally handled.

There were other issues even relatively early on. Rumblings from within the company suggested that certain positions would be exempted from the relocation, in particular those where the company has a tougher time acquiring talent and competing with other industries. (Originally, the relocation was rumored to be more targeted, rather than an across-the-board move of the core Imagineering campus from Glendale to Lake Nona.)

Following that, job postings on the Disney Careers website indicated that roles currently based in Southern California would be relocating to Orlando by late 2024. Those postings were quickly deleted or modified, but suggested the move would not be completed within the year.

Fast forward about 11 months after the initial announcement and the timeline was officially pushed back. At that time, Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler said that the expected opening date for the Lake Nona campus was pushed back to 2026 in order to “give people more time” and accommodate the construction timeline for the new offices.

Disney specifically stated that the standoff with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Reedy Creek Improvement District dissolution controversy had nothing to do with the delay. Now, I’m no math whizz, but if the initial timeline is 18 months and the revised timeline is at least 3 years after the project was originally slated to be completed…something is up beyond just routine delays. (They knew employees would need time to relocate–that wasn’t some shocking revelation last year.)

Now, we have the first major update since last June. The plan below comes courtesy of a report in GrowthSpotter, which reveals that Tavistock submitted an application for a framework master plan on behalf of Disney. Per this, Global architecture firm HOK is leading the design work for the project, alongside Harris Civil Engineers. The application was filed in time to get on the March 9 agenda for the city’s new Development Review Committee.

HOK has created corporate campuses for some of the world’s largest corporations, including Honeywell, LG and Norfolk Southern, and specializes in sustainable design. For the LG North America headquarters in New Jersey, the 350,000-square-foot headquarters office achieved Platinum LEED certification.

Construction of the Disney’s Lake Nona campus will be phased. Upon completion, it will consist of six office buildings, two flex buildings, three parking garages, a central plant, and a surface parking lot for visitors. While the zoning allows for a maximum height of 10 stories, the initial plan calls for buildings to range in height from four to seven stories. Each of the parking garages will have six levels.

The bulk of the built environment, 1.46 million square feet, is defined as general offices, while the remaining 346,000 square feet will be flex office/industrial. The offices featured 60,000 square feet of solar panels plus 2 acres of green roofs to meet the commitment to be carbon net-zero.

Access to the Lake Nona campus will be restricted. The site plan shows three entrances, each of which have a guard station. Once inside the campus, employees and visitors will be able to travel via an internal loop road.

This isn’t much different than Disney’s corporate campuses in California. You can’t simply show up and wander around–there are guard stations and only employees and visitors who have a reason to be there are allowed entry. (Come to think of it, not that much different than driving to resorts at Walt Disney World these days!)

Turning to commentary, I have mixed thoughts about this. The Lake Nona relocation is not a topic we’ve covered previously, save for offhand comments here and there. In large part, that’s because of the human side of the story–while Florida-based DPEP employees are undoubtedly excited to have more of their colleagues close to them, California-based ones have had to make tough decisions.

It’s also because I honestly didn’t think the relocation would happen, especially after the showdown between Chapek and DeSantis last spring and summer. Another hesitation is an offshoot of that, as this relocation has become yet another flashpoint in the culture wars, representing the “battle” of Florida v. California for some people.

Having lived in both Central Florida and Southern California–and the respective Orange Counties that Disney’s theme parks call home–our view is that this is unreasonably reductive and not necessarily reflective of reality. To be sure, there are differences between the two, but no state is monolithic–especially ones as large and diverse as Florida and California.

As noted above, a fair comparison for Lake Nona is Irvine, California (albeit on a smaller scale). It’s not like this up-and-coming section of Central Florida is the same as the Villages or some rural part of the panhandle. This isn’t to say that there are not material differences between the two–there absolutely are–just that family, schools, friends, and other ways people establish roots are likely the more significant, overriding considerations.

Rather than turning this into another topic on corporate governance, we’re going to look at this from a guest perspective–or more specifically, the viewpoint of Walt Disney World fans. Even if you’re a Florida-centric fan, it must be acknowledged that there’s a ton of history in Glendale for Walt Disney Imagineering, and it’ll be sad to lose that. It may seem insignificant to newer fans, but the creatives walking halls and using the offices of the early greats of WED had to have been inspiring and important and reflected in the work product.

Of course, it’s the people and not the buildings that give institutions meaning, so the bigger blow is to the creative culture. Part of this is likely already playing out by virtue of blows to morale. Again, this has played out in public view on social media, as departing Imagineers and others who opted against relocating have expressed animosity and anger with the company. Some went from being stewards of WED’s rich legacy to downright disillusioned and resentful.

Beyond broader employee morale, there’s also the likelihood of losing tenured creatives with decades of experience and knowledge. As with the recent return-to-office mandate from CEO Bob Iger, this Lake Nona move also functions as a layoff in disguise. Given that older employees tend to be those with stronger ties to a place and less to gain by a late career move, it’s likely they were disproportionate departures from Disney.

Walt Disney Imagineering was hit hard even before this in 2020, and it’s impossible to say how many of the recent high-profile retirements have actually been “retirements” (with heavy air quotes). Joe Rohde and Bob Weis quickly getting new jobs after leaving Disney strongly suggests that those were “retirements.”

Already, the negative ramifications of losing older employees has been evident at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. The loss of institutional knowledge has resulted in perplexing decisions, from the use of non-durable materials in designs to maintenance woes (and probably a lot more of which we are unaware). This is not just an Imagineering issue–it’s been a struggle for the parks since reopening, and it’ll take years to rebuild certain departments that relied on the knowledge and skills of employees who had honed their craft over the course of decades with Disney.

From the outside looking in, I’d imagine that there are other negative consequences of Imagineering not being near Disney’s corporate headquarters. I won’t pretend to know how regularly those from the c-suite drop in on the Imagineering R&D labs, enter the Dish, or otherwise poke around–but I’m guessing it’ll happen far less when it requires a cross-country flight instead of a ~15 minute drive.

Having a creative campus near the Disney headquarters likely served not only as a reminder of the corporate ethos, but also a good way to excite executives about cool projects–and maybe even get things greenlit. That’s entirely speculative on my part, so file this one under “things that make sense to me but might not actually be accurate.”

There’s also likely upside in Imagineering moving to Florida for fans. Central Florida is gradually becoming the epicenter of the themed design world, with a ton of contractors and vendors being based in the area. It’s hard to see that shift reversing course, especially as major new parks (Epic Universe) and independent projects (AREA15) become increasingly common.

From a development perspective, Southern California is largely built-out whereas Central Florida is upstart and booming. There’s potential for even more to come in and around Orlando. This is definitely counterintuitive given the reputation of California as a tech hub–and there’s plenty being built in SoCal–but not on par with the explosion in Central Florida.

There’s also value in having the “home parks” of more Imagineers be Walt Disney World. Without question, Disneyland gets special treatment and attention, which is for a number of reasons from Walt’s legacy to local demographics. It’s also at least in part because Disneyland is nearer to influential individuals within the company.

Executives and Imagineers take their families there on weekends, and Disneyland Resort benefits from little pet projects as a result. Now, this isn’t to say that the tables would immediately turn and the Florida parks would have better attention to detail and so forth–as there are a lot of reasons why Disneyland does things differently–but it definitely couldn’t hurt!

It’s also difficult to deny that a lot of what gets designed for Walt Disney World comes from a very “California-centric” viewpoint. By this, I’m specifically referring to the weather. Don’t get me wrong, I love Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Even though I’m not a huge fan of Toy Story Land, I’ll admit that it has its moments.

However, both have glaring issues that are not a result of budget cuts or value engineering. These problems are conscious design choices that might’ve looked or sounded cool in theory, but clashed with the hard realities of having to exist in a working theme park subject to things like Florida weather.

Quite simply, these lands do not feel like they were designed by anyone who ever spent a full day outside in Orlando. Maybe these perplexing design decisions will persist, but this is another thing I’d file under it couldn’t hurt for Imagineers to be closer to Walt Disney World.

Ultimately, that just scratches the surface on the pros and cons of the Lake Nona move, and is admittedly coming from an outsider’s perspective. I won’t pretend that I have a complete grasp of the potential benefits and negative ramifications of such a move, and there’s undoubtedly a lot that I’m missing.

Regardless of how this ends up playing out, I don’t think it was handled well initially and couldn’t have come at a worse time back in 2021. Morale at Parks & Resorts was already bad, and this certainly has not helped. Even making the very generous assumption that the company had good motivations in the move, Disney could have had a longer timeline from the outset or approached the move in a more methodical manner. Instead, this was hamfisted and unorganized from the outset, with an overly aggressive timeline that probably was not viable regardless of the intervening controversies.

I doubt many people internal or external would’ve argued against two large-scale creative campuses–one in Glendale and one in Lake Nona–and letting employees choose where they wanted to work. Like so many announcements executed under the Chapek regime, Disney instead took a “worst of both worlds” approach instead of trying to thread the needle and turn the Lake Nona campus into a positive for the company and Walt Disney Imagineering.

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What do you think about Imagineering and the rest of DPEP’s relocation to Lake Nona, Florida? Think this will be a positive or negative–or a mixture of both–for Imagineering and Disney fans? Thoughts on this being a layoff in disguise? Agree with our takes about the good and bad of move? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Feel free to share your perspective, but keep the comments civil. This is not the place for politically-charged arguing, culture wars, antagonism, personal attacks, or cheap shots. We will be heavy-handed in deleting any comments that cross the line, irrespective of viewpoint.

35 Responses to “Disney Reveals Plans for Imagineering’s New Campus in Lake Nona, Florida”
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