ANAHEIM — Walt Disney Co.'s decision to pack its bats and gloves and walk away from the Anaheim stadium deal is familiar to Disney watchers acquainted with the company's steely negotiating tactics.
"The only kind of ball they play is hardball," said Richard Foglesong, a Florida academic who is writing a book about Disney's hard-nosed business dealings with the communities surrounding Walt Disney World in Florida.
While Disney officials Wednesday announced that the $100-million stadium deal has collapsed, longtime observers say Disney might be using brinkmanship as a last-ditch tactic to wring additional concessions out of the city of Anaheim.
"It's not over by a long shot," said Steve White, a member of Anaheim Homeowners Maintaining Their Environment, a local activist group that opposes Disney's planned construction of a second theme park near Disneyland. "They aren't going to walk away from a deal this sweet."
Disney reportedly has offered to put up $70 million of the cost to renovate the Big A--an unprecedented sum in an era of skinflint team owners.
Yet to meet its desired rate of return, Disney also wants the city of Anaheim to forgo any share in the facility's future revenue stream.
Disney officials have often described their relationship with communities like Anaheim and Orlando as "partnerships" in which everyone benefits.
But in exchange for bringing jobs, tourists and international fame to those cities, Disney has extracted a host of tax breaks, subsidies and other public concessions over the years--feeding its image as a 500-pound Mouse that always gets its way.
Foglesong says Disney typically gets the upper hand in the communities where it operates.
"There is a period of seduction, followed by courtship and initial harmony . . . which inevitably leads to therapy and the threat of divorce," said Foglesong, a professor of politics at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., near Orlando. "The problem is, there are so many children dependent on the relationship that both sides have to find a way to work things out."
While Foglesong and others speculate that Disney might be posturing to get a better deal out of Anaheim, the company has shown that it will walk away from deals that aren't sufficiently profitable, and that it sometimes bows to community pressure.
Disney abandoned plans for its "America" history theme park near Haymarket, Va., when citizens and historians raised a ruckus about the "Disneyfication" of history.
Likewise, the company scrapped its plans last year for a new "Westcot" theme park in Anaheim when it determined that the $3-billion project wouldn't generate a sufficient return. The company is expected to announced a scaled-down version of the project in coming weeks.
"Disney doesn't play games," said Disney board member Ray Watson. "They are tough negotiators, but overall I think they are very fair. That makes me feel good as a board member . . . because they are doing the job for shareholders."
Even adversaries admit they admire the shrewd negotiators lurking behind the smiling Mouse. Daren Brinkman, attorney for the partnership battling Disney for control of the bankrupt Grand Hotel in Anaheim, says the public is so mesmerized by the Disney stardust that it ignores the hardball tactics Disney employs to get what it wants.
Brinkman's partnership has alleged in a lawsuit that Disney put the Grand Hotel's business in jeopardy when it revealed plans to turn the Anaheim hotel into a parking lot as part of its Westcot expansion plans. Disney is now trying to take control of the site.
"They have a Teflon image," Brinkman said. "People think very highly of them because of all the Disney magic, and they capitalize on that image."
It remains to be seen who will come out of the Anaheim Stadium situation looking like the villain. But despite Disney's announcement that the deal is off, Disney watchers say that "it ain't over 'til it's over."
"Is the stadium deal really dead?" Watson said. "Who knows? How's that for an answer?"