Disney's Florida Critics Warn of a Greedy Monster

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the Walt Disney Co. talking about building a billion-dollar theme park in Southern California, Long Beach and Anaheim are competing for its attentions the way Cinderella's stepsisters went after the handsome prince.

But a growing number of critics in Orlando, home of the world's largest Disney park, contend that the company behind the lovable mouse is a political power motivated by greed, bent on growth and nearly impossible to control.

Increasingly, Orlando and surrounding Orange County, Fla., are reeling under the weight of the stunning financial success Disney brought them. Local observers complain that as the corporation continues to expand, it turns its back on the gridlocked roads and housing crunch that have come with prosperity.

Granted, critics say, Orlando would be nowhere without the Walt Disney Co., which pumped millions of dollars into the local economy and made a humid farm town the world's No. 1 commercial tourist destination.

But in recent months, the tide of public sentiment in Florida has begun to turn against Disney, now being referred to in some circles as "the mouse that ate Orlando" or "the grinch that stole affordable housing." Today, as Disney is pitting Long Beach and Anaheim against each other in a competition for a new theme park in Southern California, Floridians suggest that much could be learned from the Orlando experience.

"Anaheim and Long Beach better look long and hard at Disney. Those people are powerful and dangerous around here," Orange County, Fla., Commissioner Bill Donegan said. "The roads are jammed, everything is clogged and now we have to raise taxes to pay for Disney's business. . . . It's just plain greed."

"Disney has always been a good neighbor to Florida," Disney spokesman Charles Ridgway said. "The economic condition of the Orlando community is extremely good. I think the fears are somewhat unwarranted and the conclusions unsupportable."

What is happening in Florida, some say, illustrates how even the most successful Disney enterprise can bring a community economic salvation and be a nagging thorn in the side.

"Don't get carried away with the pixie dust," cautioned Commissioner Linda Chapin. "I, like most everybody else in Orange County (Fla.), have a love-hate relationship with Disney."

While some in Orlando are grumbling, the city of Anaheim--where Disney has been king for 35 years--describes its relationship with the company as "only positive."

Indeed, Anaheim officials are so pleased with Disneyland they have vowed to do "almost anything" to bring the second park to their town. And Long Beach business leaders, hungry for tourist dollars and a livelier image, are urging the city to "bend over backward" to woo Disney.

Orlando officials point out that the Disney company that came to Anaheim in the 1950s--led by a man with a wild vision and a shoestring budget--is today a powerful mega-corporation that literally runs its own government in central Florida.

Walt Disney went to Orlando in the mid-1960s when the town was a collection of orange groves and cattle herds. Anonymously, he bought a chunk of land the size of San Francisco to build his second dream park.

Because he deplored the string of gaudy motels that had sprung up around Disneyland in Anaheim, Disney was determined to tightly control development around what would become Walt Disney World in Orange County, Fla.

So eager was the Florida state Legislature to accommodate Disney that it allowed the company to create a government 18 miles outside of Orlando with its own police department, fire department, taxation powers and building codes.

It is known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District and surrounding Orange and Osceola counties are virtually powerless to control it. About 27 families reside there, all handpicked by the Walt Disney Co. Any housing built on Disney land is promptly de-annexed out of Reedy Creek's boundaries, ensuring that only the Disney employees chosen to live in Reedy Creek have the right to elect the governing Board of Supervisors. And all of the supervisors work for Disney.

"It isn't American," Donegan said. "They are a quasi-city not required to follow any growth management. They can build whatever they please on that property and there isn't a thing we can do about it."

The Legislature's generosity stemmed in part from its hope that Disney would do for Orlando what it did for Anaheim. And Disney more than delivered. Orlando now has an expanding international airport, a convention center that is about to double in size and more hotel rooms than New York City, area tourist officials report.

But now, 20 years later, Orange County, Fla., wants to manage its staggering growth while Disney is still itching to build. The corporation's unique powers give it the autonomy to move straight from design to construction, and the county struggling to harness growth "can't even send out a building inspector to make sure it's done right," Donegan said.

Disney's polished image began to tarnish around Orlando last summer when it agreed to pay the county nearly $14 million to help improve roads stressed to their limits, in large part because of Disney tourists. In exchange, the county agreed not to challenge Disney's government powers for the next seven years.

Everyone seemed happy with the deal until a few weeks later, when Disney called a press conference to announce its plan for the '90s: seven more hotels, 29 new attractions, 19,000 more employees and a fourth amusement park--all of which promise to further burden roads and swell the ranks of low-wage earners searching for houses they can afford, several county officials said.

"I think in a way it may have been dishonest," said Orange County Commissioner Hal Marston, an otherwise enthusiastic supporter of Disney developments. "We were bargaining in good faith . . . and this was an absolute surprise to Orange County. I didn't hear the plans from Disney, I heard them from reporters."

Last month, Disney's public image took another lashing, perhaps the worst yet, when $57 million in state tax-free bond money became available to local Florida governments on a first-come, first-served priority. Disney was first in line and took all of it to upgrade the amusement park's sewer system.

Orange County had planned to use its share of the money to build low-income housing. When word got out that a corporation that made $703 million last year had snatched money that would have helped the poor, the public outcry could be heard all the way to Tomorrowland.

"How did such a smelly problem develop, especially one that pits families of modest means against a resort giant?" the Orlando Sentinel cried in a Jan. 9 editorial demanding that Disney give the money back. "Unless Reedy Creek turns back the bonds, Disney will become the grinch that stole affordable housing."

Further miffing county officials is Disney's pattern of building attractions strikingly similar to Orlando's own tourist spots. Orlando had Wet 'n' Wild, and Disney built Typhoon Lagoon. Orlando had its popular Church Street Station night spot and Disney built a night spot called Pleasure Island.

Although there is little evidence that Orlando's business has suffered, Disney's custom of selling four-day passes to the park has led some officials to suspect the company intends to devour all the tourist dollars, keeping visitors on Disney territory for their entire stay and throwing Orlando the scraps.

"Their whole goal in life is to take the visitor to Disney World and never let them escape, which means we don't have the off-site economic benefit, but we do have the off-site traffic problems," Commissioner Chapin said.

"Disney has this extraordinary mentality--they absolutely have this mind-set that they are wonderful. They think we are ingrates, biting the hand that feeds us."

Some would say Disney is right. After all, as many as 80% of the 12 million tourists who came to Orlando last year came for Disney, said Abraham Pizam, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Tourism.

Even critics acknowledge that Disney pays $23 million in taxes yearly and, because it provides almost entirely for itself, it does not get back $23 million in government services.

"Everybody is riding on Disney's coattails--hospitals, doctors' offices, gas stations, pharmacies, glass makers," Pizam said. "You may think that people here bow to the Old Mouse, but there is no doubt--whether you like Disney or dislike Disney--that this town exists in its present form because of Disney. Fifteen years ago, this was a cow town."

Now more than ever, some county commissioners want to see Disney's political wings clipped, but they are bound by last summer's road agreement to stay mum for the next seven years.

Some local leaders hope the Florida Legislature will move to undo what it did for Disney more than 20 years ago, but that seems unlikely. Disney remains enormously popular in the state, where a University of Central Florida survey concluded 18 months ago that locals endorse the tourist industry 3 to 1. And in Florida, tourism is synonymous with Disney.

"I think you could classify Disney as the strongest lobby in Tallahassee (the state capital)," Marston said. "A couple of weeks ago Disney invited every legislator in the state and their families to come to Disney World for the weekend--all expenses paid. I don't know who took them up. I certainly wouldn't."

Whatever image-bashing Disney is taking in Florida, it hasn't mattered on the West Coast. Long Beach officials are engaging in closed-door talks with Disney and Anaheim Mayor Fred Hunter, at the mere mention of a second park, responded: "Yes, yes, yes."

Disney dropped its bombshell Jan. 12 when, after courting Long Beach with talk of a park for nearly a year, company Chairman Michael Eisner drew Anaheim into the fray, saying the new park would go to the city that "wants us more." The race, it seems, will be won by the city willing to spend the most on road and parking improvements. The price tag could approach $100 million.

Leaders in both cities say they are sophisticated enough to avoid the Florida experience--that their towns are all grown up, short on land and not about to bow to a talking mouse.

"I call Disney a top-shelf organization. They are quality," Hunter said. "We're not a bunch of people that fell off the turnip truck here in Anaheim. Of course Eisner wants a little bidding war. We're not dumb. But we don't give away the store."

Long Beach Mayor Ernie Kell said of his city's valuable ocean acreage: "That is some of the primest land in the world, and there are many uses for it. Yes, Disney would be a key (to the city's success.) But if Disney decides not to come here, it is not the end of the world."

So far, the two cities are competing for a prize that is still an evolving idea. Disney spokesmen say millions of dollars have been spent exploring possibilities in both towns, but the "conceptual masterpiece" is unfinished. The company, traditionally secretive about its intentions, will not disclose what is being dreamed up by its team of "imagineers" working in a Glendale office building.

The plans for Anaheim are extremely vague--a theme park of some sort on 60 acres around Disneyland. But tourist-related tax revenues already make up more than 20% of the city's general fund, which pays for such services as police and fire departments. And Anaheim officials say they know more of a good thing when they see it.

"Disneyland is the most important tenant in our city," City Manager Bob Simpson said. "We'll do anything and everything we can to help them."

Only a little more is known about Disney's plans for Long Beach: a water park on 256 acres of ocean around the Queen Mary that would open in 10 years and bring 10,000 new jobs. Sources who have glimpsed the sketches recall "petting dolphins and lots of sea horses" and a possible "Mysteries of the Deep" theme.

Disney's presence looks awfully good to some officials in Long Beach, a city that has tried for 20 years to debunk the public perception that it's a worn-out Navy town of strip joints and dockside bars. When a 1989 survey asked travelers across the state to rank four California beach towns where they would most like to vacation, Long Beach finished last.

"On a scale of 1 to 10 Disney is a 10. Nobody else is Disney. When you are talking Disney, you are talking Rolls-Royce," Long Beach City Councilman Les Robbins said. "I think if you took a (council) vote today, it would be nine-zip to pursue Disney and leave no rock unturned."

Times staff writer Mary Lou Fulton contributed to this story.

NEXT STEP

Now that Long Beach and Anaheim have made clear their interest in having a second Disney amusement park in Southern California, the next move belongs to Disney. "Imagineers" are busily working up theme park ideas. Once the details are in place, the cities must decide how much of the bill--which could run as high as $100 million--they are willing to foot for roads and parking facilities. Disney has said the city willing to spend the most will be the site of the billion-dollar attraction. Disney has refused to reveal so much as a time line for its plans. But Anaheim is already examining road improvements and Long Beach recently extended by six months the company's exclusive negotiating rights to valuable water acreage around the Queen Mary. Disney's deadline for presenting project details in Long Beach is next summer.

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