Disney road paves way to skip I-4, enter park

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Walt Disney World is quietly building a new road onto its property that could siphon thousands of tourists a day off Interstate 4.

The route would take visitors driving down the Interstate 75/Florida's Turnpike corridor into Disney from State Road 429, the Western Beltway toll road being built through western Orange County.

When more of that expressway opens this winter, one of the exits will lead to a new four-lane divided road called Western Way, entering Disney from the west.

"The connection of the new Western Way to the Western Beltway will be a convenient alternative . . . to access Walt Disney World Resort," said Andrea Finger, spokeswoman for Walt Disney Imagineering.

The Western Beltway is being jointly built by Florida's Turnpike Enterprise and the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority.

The Expressway Authority is spending $230 million to extend the toll road south 11 miles from County Road 535 to Seidel Road. The turnpike group is spending $310 million on the next 11 miles to I-4.

The sections from C.R. 535 to U.S. Highway 192 should open in December, and the rest about a year later.

The new Disney road could open by March or April, connecting with an interchange on S.R. 429 about three miles north of U.S. 192, in the turnpike enterprise's section. From there, Western Way snakes east and south for 3.5 miles inside Disney property, ending at West Buena Vista Road between Blizzard Beach and Disney-MGM Studios.

Disney, which owns the entire roadway, is spending $50 million to build it, and it will remain private. That means the road did not have to be reviewed by Orange County transportation officials, Growth Management Manager Jim Harrison said.

The private road largely escaped the notice of Orange County officials, including Harrison, Mayor Rich Crotty and those at MetroPlan Orlando, the region's road-planning agency. Even some officials at the turnpike enterprise, which is building the interchange, said they did not know Disney planned the road as a major new entrance.

Still, public planners applauded the idea that the new Disney route could divert thousands of cars a day off I-4. Disney estimates the new road would carry 15,000 vehicles a day in its first year. If traffic grows, Disney plans to widen Western Way to six lanes.

"It's good news, though I'm surprised they haven't made more of it," MetroPlan Executive Director Harry Barley said after learning of the road Friday.

The S.R. 429 route also would lead visitors away from driving past other tourist temptations such as Universal Studios, SeaWorld Orlando and International Drive.

Universal Orlando spokesman Tom Schroeder said his company is not worried about losing the exposure.

"Universal guests are smart, dedicated, and they can also read road maps," he said.

Kevin Hoeflich, the turnpike enterprise's project manager for the Western Beltway design, said he did not know Disney planned a road capable of sending 15,000 cars a day to and from S.R. 429. He said the expressway could handle the traffic, and he gave the company credit for helping make the expressway possible in the first place.

Plenty of private interests pushed for construction of the expressway, but not many ponied up, he said. Disney donated $7.5 million and 200 acres.

"Outside of the transportation agencies, the only entity that came to the table with anything was Disney," he said. "Without the [land] donation and the funds to make up the shortfall, I don't imagine this project would have been built."

Richard Foglesong, author of the book Married to the Mouse, a critical look at Disney's political influence in Central Florida, said Disney likely would get more than its money's worth from the contribution and the new road.

"It would seem on the surface that their contribution to the state was small in relation to the potential benefit to the company," said Foglesong, the Cornell Professor of Political Science at Rollins College in Winter Park.

The road project "has the benefit of potentially siphoning cars off of I-4, which would appear to serve the benefit of all commuters in Central Florida. But it clearly serves Disney's pecuniary interests as well."

Scott Powers can be reached at spowers@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5441.

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