Here and there, you’ve probably noticed a social media post from a current or former Disney Imagineer about the upcoming move of most employees in the division from Glendale, California, to Lake Nona, Florida. As the move draws closer, we are beginning to find out who will or won’t make the move to Central Florida. Just the other day, we found out that Kevin Lively, who just recently completed stellar updates of The Jungle Cruise attraction at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, will not be staying on through the relocation.
For some, the decision has already been made, and they won’t be heading southeast. For others, a “yes” to the move was given in hopes that the Lake Nona relocation will fail to materialize or at least fail to materialize quickly, leaving them a few more months, maybe even years of employment at WDI before they have to pack a bag.
Morale at Walt Disney Imagineering is understandably at “an all-time low,” according to those who we spoke with, all of which are still actively employed in Glendale. How could it not be after the COVID-19 furloughs, which were followed by layoffs, forced retirements, and now this “move” to Lake Nona? Things are bad enough that Imagineers who have been with the company 30 years or longer often warn younger employees that they “shouldn’t trust management” in regards to this Florida campus project and beyond.
Apparently, upper management had such little respect for the leadership at Imagineering that they only told them about the Lake Nona move but a day or two before it was announced to the public. That’s right, Imagineering wasn’t even consulted on this drastic change of scenery for their employees. When WDI Presidents Bob Weis and Barbara Bouza had to break the news to the entire campus, it was said that they looked “distraught,” and the perception of their peers was that they took the decision from the company “very personally.”
Originally, teams were going to be specifically picked to move to Florida, but then about a month ago, the direction became that “all of Imagineering was going to be going.” The internal rumblings on this change are that so few are willing to make the move, that it just makes sense to move all who are willing to go. Some estimate as low as just 15% or less of employees will remain when all is said and done.
Imagineers were given 90 days to decide if they were going to move or not. That’s the point at which many started to leave the organization. As stated before, others not planning to make the move are holding out, whether it be out of hope that the Lake Nona project gets canned or simply to collect their upcoming bonuses early next year. Another large scale exodus of talent is expected at that time.
No matter who you talk to, the story seems to be the same, that Walt Disney Imagineering is a mess at the moment. Some staff was told that if they say “no” to the move, they can change their minds in the future, while others were told the exact opposite. Administrators and assistants were not even offered relocation packages; they were instead told they could relocate themselves and reapply for the position after doing so.
In the end, it is clearer each day to the public what the Lake Nona move is, and Imagineers have known it since day one. It is not truly a relocation; it is a downsizing, cost-cutting measure. The pandemic has offered Disney CEO Bob Chapek and his associates an opportunity to make the company as lean as possible, as lean as they always wanted it to be. The layoffs, early-retirement offers, and now this move are all in the same effort to reduce creative costs on projects, which has been a hallmark of the Chapek regime from the day he was given the job as the head of Parks and Resorts back in 2015. Every Imagineer interviewed specifically brought up the last-minute elimination of entertainment and walk-around audio-animatronics characters for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, and many brought up other projects they worked on which had been drastically slashed over the past six years. Given these circumstances, none of them are shocked as to what is happening to their departments now.
So, why would someone stay with the company through all of this? Well, like you and me, these Imagineers, in most cases, are lifelong Disney fans. Multiple Imagineers told us that they know they could make 2-3 times more money and be happier elsewhere, but they pursued this passion because they love the theme parks and want nothing more in this world but to create amazing places for guests to visit. They also, like us, don’t want to see the current regime that is running The Walt Disney Company decimate the product nor the legendary institution that created it.
The reality that The Walt Disney Company doesn’t understand in its fight for a healthy bottom line today is that many of these people are not replaceable. This talent can not be found at a lower price point, and the resulting product, no matter how wildly popular your intellectual properties are, will not make the return you believe it will if the representation in the theme parks and resorts is poorly designed or no different from what a competitor can make.
This post comes from a selfish place, and honestly, so do the pleas of the Imagineers who want to stay with the company now without moving. As people who grew up to love the Disney brand and all that it stands for, we want to see it thrive and succeed while remaining true to its core values. We know that if all this comes to pass, in many ways, the company we fell in love with will no longer be what it once was. Again, these wonderfully talented people know they can make magic elsewhere, but they want to make it for the company they love and for the people who share in that love with them.
If Disney does make this mistake and relinquishes all of this talent to the world, I pray the rest of the themed entertainment industry takes this opportunity to strengthen their rosters. I personally would give anything to have the capital to begin a new theme park endeavor right now, knowing full well I could have my pick of some of the most talented people to ever create and design. Disney’s loss will be the rest of the industry’s gain, or maybe someone will, for once, think of the product they give their customers over a temporary change to a profit margin.