Disney does Orlando

Sunday, September 16, 2001

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Few companies have single-handedly changed a community the way Walt Disney World has since it opened the Magic Kingdom 30 years ago in a sleepy citrus and cattle town.

Orlando is now the home of seven of the world's most popular theme parks, has more than 100,000 hotel rooms and attracts more than 40 million visitors a year.

But Disney World, which celebrates its 30th anniversary Oct. 1, hasn't always acted like Prince Charming.

While Disney's presence has brought low unemployment, international name recognition and a tax base for local governments, it also has brought traffic jams, crowded schools and a low-wage economy.

Most local leaders argue that Disney's presence has been well worth any social costs.

"If Disney hadn't come, would the community have gotten anything? We'd still be selling oranges and raising cattle," said Bill Peeper, executive director of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Secret land buys

Disney chose Orlando in the 1960s because it was the intersection of two major highways, Interstate 4 and the Florida Turnpike. Using dummy corporations to prevent land speculation, it secretly acquired more than 27,000 acres that eventually became the site of the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios, Animal Kingdom, 18 hotels and three water parks.

In his recently published book "Married to the Mouse," Rollins College politics professor Richard Foglesong notes strains in Disney's relationship with the community.

Foglesong argues that Disney has underpaid its taxes by claiming land as agricultural instead of commercial, has competed with Orange County for bond money to expand its sewage treatment plant, twice in the 1980s nixed plans for community-wide rapid transit systems, and has ignored affordable housing issues affecting its workers.

"It's a marriage that has some structural problems because of the low-wage nature of employment and because of the community's dependence on tourism," Foglesong said.

Disney also has had a unique advantage over competitors and local governments, Foglesong argues, because the Florida Legislature in the late 1960s granted the company planning and zoning authority and exemptions from local land-use laws.

A different EPCOT

He said the Legislature was sold on the idea that Disney needed such autonomy and flexibility to build Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), a futuristic, model city that would showcase American industry, technology and education.

However, Epcot never materialized as envisioned by Walt Disney, who died in 1966. Instead, Epcot opened in 1982 with a combination of exhibits on technology and World's Fair-style pavilions on foreign countries. Instead of a model city, in 1996 it opened Celebration, a throwback to small-town America.

Dianna Morgan, Disney World's senior vice president for public affairs, says lawmakers granted Disney immense powers for economic development reasons.

"Walt Disney World is probably the most significant economic incentive initiative ever created," Morgan said.

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