News for the Hospitality Executive
|The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 15, 2004 - Disney and Orlando have been together so long their names merge in people's minds, like some old married couple: JimandJanet. GregandSusan. OrlandoandDisney.
"It's one and the same -- 100 percent," said Marty Schluns, a 46-year-old mechanic from West Virginia who has been coming to Orlando every other year for 10 years.
It's the same relationship that other company towns have between the community and the largest employer. What is Bentonville, Ark., without Wal-Mart or Hershey "Chocolate Town," Pa., without the Hershey Food Corp.?
"Disney has given our community an identity. It has touched us all," said Maureen Brockman, vice president for marketing with the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission. "Most of us know somebody who would be impacted by major changes within the organization."
This isn't true in California where, even though it is The Walt Disney Co.'s headquarters, the corporation and Los Angeles are not considered one and the same.
If cable-TV giant Comcast succeeds in its bid, announced last week, to take over Disney, any change in ownership is more likely to be felt in Orange County, Fla., than Orange County, Calif., said Carl Winston, director of the hospitality and tourism department at San Diego State University.
"They are a huge player in Southern California, but they are not the 800-pound gorilla that you have in Orlando," Winston said.
For the people of Orlando, any change of ownership is more than just a corporate business transaction. It adds uncertainty to something that has been a constant for three decades. Disney is the big fish that takes over other companies, as it did when it bought out Capital Cities/ABC in 1996. Not the other way around.
"I hope it's not going to happen, but if it does, it won't be Disney. Even though it would be Disney World, it would be different," said Tonjia Woods, 39, of Altamonte Springs, who works in marketing for Sam's Club. "It would be different for the city, too."
The thought of Disney under different ownership frightens Brad Magic, an amusement-park aficionado who buys annual passes to all the area theme parks. But at the same time, he wants to see something happen that restores the luster that Disney theme parks have lost in recent years through cost cutting and cutbacks on park maintenance.
For the first time in a long time, Magic did not buy an annual pass to the Disney theme parks this year.
"It's in disarray. They don't keep the parks up. Some of the rides are closed," said Magic, a 33-year-old mechanical engineer. "That's not the memory I want of Disney World for myself."
If it takes new ownership to restore the magic to the Magic Kingdom, then maybe a corporate takeover by a cable company would not be so bad, many Orlando residents contend.
"Disney has gotten a little stale in recent years. It needs to get a breath of fresh air," said William M. Maldonado, 55, who used to work as a Disney hotel manager.
Maldonado and Magic echo the complaints of Roy E. Disney, who resigned from the Disney board last year after complaining that Chairman Michael Eisner had neglected the amusement parks and animation studios.
The combination of Comcast and Disney could provide a measure of stability to Central Florida's economy, said Winston of SDSU. The cable company's consistent revenue, fatter profit margins and earnings growth could offset the cyclical nature of Disney's dependence upon tourism and movie production.
"You won't pull your cable out of the wall if we have another 9-11," Winston said.
Even under a new owner, Disney World will still be Disney World, much like the sale of SeaWorld to Anheuser-Busch didn't significantly change that theme park, said Maldonado, a facilities manager.
"It will never be Comcast World with two antennas instead of mouse ears. They are not going to destroy what they purchased, the icon they bought," he said.
What could change, however, is the 30-year marriage between Orlando and Disney.
A new owner would inherit much of the autonomy granted Disney by the Florida Legislature when Walt Disney chose Orlando for his new theme park. But how a company such as Comcast would use those powers might be quiet different from Disney.
Although known as a company that likes to have its way, Disney also is a very image-conscious business willing to change its mind to avoid negative publicity.
For example, when Disney was confronted by Orange County officials over its immunity from impact fees, the company agreed to pay the county $14.5 million in lieu of the fees, said Rick Foglesong, a Rollins College professor who wrote Married to the Mouse, about Orlando's symbiotic relationship with Disney.
"They are a special kind of company, and they put Orlando on the map. You may love them or hate them, but it could be worse," Foglesong said. "You want to know if the new owner accepts the terms of the marriage and acts responsibly as a key player in the Orlando community."
Many question whether Comcast shares Disney's concern about image.
"What image are they conscious about? They're the cable company -- wait a day and we'll hook your cable up," Magic said.
Comcast has tried hard to cultivate a good image in Philadelphia where it is based, said Peggy Amsterdam, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.
"Comcast is a longtime and very broad supporter of the arts here. They support arts and culture and support the quality of life in Philadelphia to a very generous extent," Amsterdam said.
While Comcast does not loom over Philadelphia the same way Disney does with Orlando, Comcast has tried to stand out without being ostentatious, Amsterdam said.
"They've supported so many things. You see their logos on all kinds of programs, but it's not like they put their name up on buildings. Philadelphia is not that type of city. But they have taken Philadelphia seriously," she said.
Without knowing much about Comcast, what worries many Orlando residents is that a corporate takeover is about power and profit, not family and community.
"It's not about smiles and families and the surrounding communities that might be affected," Magic said. "It's about dollar signs."
A change in Disney ownership could create a community identity crisis for Orlando or it could provide the city with a chance to establish its own image separate from Disney, Foglesong said.
"I believe Orlando needs to grow up and move beyond tourism," he said. "If we lose our Disney partner, we may be bereaved, but it is also the opportunity to search for a better partner that can move Orlando up the ladder of economic advancement."
Changing partners at Disney World could be a chance for Orlando's political leaders to shift Central Florida's emphasis from tourism to higher-wage industries.
"This could be, should be, a wake-up call to government leaders," Foglesong said. "We provide all this infrastructure for Disney and tourism while nickel-and-diming high tech. Disney represents our past, and it's not a bad past, but you need to move on."
Some residents see signs of Orlando trying to establish an identity separate from Disney in the redevelopment of the downtown. The ongoing attempts to turn Church Street into an amenity for residents instead of another destination for tourists is one step in that direction.
"Orlando is trying to develop its own personality. It's just starting to get that eclectic, urbanized-city kind of feel," said Suzanne Cleven, a 44-year-old paralegal who works downtown.
But Disney and Orlando have become so synonymous that recasting Orlando as anything other than a tourist town will be a difficult task. Alan Leach, a 49-year-old technology consultant, has been hearing about the need for Orlando to diversify its economy since moving here in 1980 from New York.
Orlando was going to be Hollywood South. Orlando was going to be Silicon Valley East.
"I haven't seen that happen," Leach said.
Orlando still is what Orlando was: the city that grew up around Disney like a back stage to its theme parks -- a big, sprawling back stage, some would contend.
"What they have produced is a land-use disaster in Central Florida," said James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere. "I don't think it matters much if a conglomerate owns them."
There is a sort of parallel universe that exists in Orlando -- those for whom the theme parks are a place to work and play and those who avoid going anywhere near the attractions.
Leach lives somewhere in the middle. Although he resides in the Dr. Phillips area, just a few miles from Disney's front door, Leach hasn't been to the theme park in years.
"I stay clear of the tourist areas," he said.
You can avoid the attractions, stay away from the tourists, but you can't escape the influence Disney has on Orlando. Any change in the theme park sends ripples, and shivers, throughout Central Florida.
Even those who grew up here, who know there is a difference between Orlando and Disney, concede that the two are forever linked for better or worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and health -- and corporate takeovers.
"There's more to Orlando than Disney," said Woods, the Altamonte Springs resident. "But when you think of Orlando, you think of Disney World. It's world-famous."
By Jeff Kunerth and Jerry W. Jackson
-----To see more of The Orlando Sentinel -- including its homes, jobs, cars and other classified listings -- or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.OrlandoSentinel.com
(c) 2004. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. DIS, WMT, HSY, CMCSK, BUD,