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Disney's Florida Critics Warn of a Greedy Monster

February 20, 1990|FAYE FIORE | 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.

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