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Disney Works Magic in Selling New Idea : Development: The entertainment giant has yet to commit itself to a harbor area theme park. But its public relations machine is already dwarfing the opposition.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The invitations were embossed, the tablecloths were white linen, the strawberries were dipped in chocolate and the meat was petit filet mignon.

It was an elegant, well-funded Queen Mary cocktail party to announce the creation of Friends of Port Disney. It also was the biggest show of support yet for the controversial $3-billion resort that the Walt Disney Co. envisions building in Long Beach.

The nearly 1,700 pro-Disney contingent seemed to dwarf a disorganized opposition around town that is struggling to block the much-debated ocean development. While critics warn that 13 million Disney tourists a year will bring traffic jams, pollution and blight, the talk in the Queen’s Salon was of 24,000 new jobs and $47 million in annual revenue that could carry Long Beach comfortably into the 21st Century.

“Everything Disney touches turns to magic. They can make it right somehow,” Pat Thornton, a local real estate broker, announced over her plate of fruit-filled tarts.

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The Walt Disney Co.'s public relations machine has been working for more than a year to sell the Disney image to Long Beach, serving cookies and soft drinks to about 5,000 people who turned out at neighborhood meetings to view Disney’s colorful slide show. And, judging from the support group’s 2,000 members and the thunder of applause that greeted Disney executives Monday, the campaign is working.

“I think the war is over. There really is no organized opposition,” declared Lloyd Ikerd, a local developer and Friends of Port Disney chairman. “How can you argue with 24,000 jobs? The project is good for Long Beach, good for the county and good for the state.”

Friends of Port Disney claims to be independent of the wealthy Disney corporation. Ikerd said the mixer’s invitations, flowers and draped white banner were donated by group members, many of them business owners; the food will be paid for by the $10 membership fees and future fund-raisers.

But Disney--which operates the Queen Mary--donated the use of the Queen’s Salon and allowed the support group to use its fiercely protected logo on invitations and bumper stickers. That sort of backing, critics say, is all part of an expensive corporate sales pitch.

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“I think it’s blatant bribery. They are lobbying like crazy, and we don’t have the time or the money to compete,” complained Andy Andrews, president of the Alamitos Heights Improvement Assn., which opposes a Disney resort on the grounds that it would only create more traffic on the city’s busy east side. “It’s hard for us to get together for these high-dollar dinners on the Queen Mary.”

Critics have produced about 800 “Boycott Disney” bumper stickers, and at a recent meeting of Alamitos Heights homeowners the Disney project was roundly booed. One resident is said to be forming a group called CAMM--Citizens Against a Malicious Mickey.

“There are a lot of people in this town opposed to Disney,” said Karen Pilcher, who conceived the boycott bumper stickers. “People are just now starting to come out of the woodwork.”

But even the critics admit that they are poorly organized, particularly when compared to the Disney team.

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According to Disney officials, about 5,000 postcards were distributed to those who attended the yearlong community presentations. Of 527 cards returned, 75% supported the Port Disney project unequivocally, 23% were neutral and 2% were opposed.

With the community presentations ended, Disney last week unveiled Port Disney News, a slick newsletter to keep Long Beach abreast of the project’s progress. A glass-encased model and promotional video recordings are on display for free public viewing on the Queen Mary.

“We’ve been a neighbor in Anaheim (home of Disneyland) for 36 years, but we’re relatively new in Long Beach. People here have wanted to get to know us. That’s why it feels particularly satisfying to see this kind of support,” said David Malmuth, Disney Development Co. vice president in charge of the Long Beach project.

Although Disney executives were extolling the virtues of Long Beach Monday, they have yet to commit to building their resort here. Negotiations for a new West Coast theme park are under way in both Long Beach and Anaheim, and Disney officials have spent millions researching both projects, while claiming they will build only one.

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Even if Long Beach is the choice, Disney still has several hurdles to clear before construction could begin. It needs the blessings of the city, more than two dozen other government agencies and the powerful Port of Long Beach, where sources have said privately that they wish Disney would just “dry up and blow away.”

More than half of Disney’s 340-acre theme park and resort would be built on port waters. The industrial port, which reaped $68 million in profits last year, stands to make no money from a Disney playground in its back yard. Harbor authorities have said they cannot endorse any project that would interfere with operations at the busiest cargo port in the country.

Shipping companies and other tenants--the port’s bread and butter--have already expressed fears of millions of Disney tourists getting lost on port property or jamming the crowded Long Beach Freeway--a vital port artery.

A new lease recently signed by Maersk Inc., one of the port’s largest and most influential tenants, includes an escape clause allowing the firm to break the agreement if a Disney venture impedes traffic or another of its operations. International Transportation Service, another major tenant, is seeking a similar escape clause as it renegotiates its lease, said Steve Dillenbeck, executive director of the port.

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“They just want to protect themselves,” he said.

Officials say those are leases the competitive port cannot afford to lose.


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