Florida's Mouse That Roared As Disney Thrived, So Did The Smaller Parks. But Are They Now In Danger Of Being Overwhelmed?

Posted: February 25, 1990

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It was just after 9 a.m. and already, thousands of cars were backed up for miles, three lanes wide, leading into Walt Disney World.

Five miles away, on Interstate 4, commuters heading for work were slowed to a crawl as swarms of tourists, turn signals flashing, forced their way into right-hand exit lanes.

Welcome to Central Florida - the nation's number-one tourist destination and home to a rodent named Mickey, a whale named Shamu and an extraterrestrial with the simple initials E.T.

For almost two decades the tourist industry here has experienced incredible growth, mainly because of Disney World, a 28,000-acre fantasy land that opened its first Florida park - The Magic Kingdom - in 1971.

Disney still is the spark that ignites the region's economy. And though there are other attractions here, plenty of them, none can match Disney when it comes to financial clout and name recognition.

Experts say most of the smaller parks, outgunned by Disney's $60 million-a- year advertising budget, are thriving despite Disney's dominance. But as Mickey & Co. grows ever larger, that may change. Last year, Disney added the Disney-MGM Studios theme park to its Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center.

A typical family spends about four days at Disney World, up from an average of two days a decade ago, according to Disney officials. The average may increase once Disney opens its fourth Florida park, planned sometime for the early 21st century.

"Every time a new (Disney) park comes along, it requires that you become a smarter marketer," said Thom Stork, director of marketing for Busch Gardens of Tampa, an African theme park that attracted more than 3.1 million visitors in 1989, its second-best year ever.

To make matters worse, the small attractions soon will have another big- name competitor. Universal Studios, the California movie company, sometime in May will open a studio and tour attraction not far from Disney.

The Universal Studios star will be E.T., the odd-looking space traveler made famous by the 1982 Steven Spielberg movie. His face already can be seen peeking around huge billboards in the area.

The Disney complex - three theme parks, a water park, more than 10,400 hotel rooms, a nighttime entertainment village and about 1,200 campsites - attracted about 30 million people in 1989, according to industry estimates. Disney does not release attendance figures.

The company's closest competitor is Sea World of Orlando. It attracted more than 4.8 million visitors in 1987, but attendance has fallen each year since. Last year Sea World had a little more than 4 million guests.

William A. Davis, president of Sea World of Florida, said the latest decline could be traced to the opening of the Disney-MGM Studios in May. Attendance at the studio has been so strong, in fact, that parking lots often are closed by 9:30 a.m. because the thousands of spaces are full.

"Certainly, there have been some negative effects this year from Disney's expansion in Central Florida, but we expected to see this during the opening year," Davis said.

Over the long term, however, Davis said, Disney's growth will be good for Central Florida and for Sea World. When Disney's Epcot Center opened in 1982, Sea World's attendance fell then, too, but it soon rebounded to record highs.

Other industry experts agree that Disney's growth has been good for Central Florida's $5.5 billion tourist industry. And they scoff at the notion that the area may become a one-stop destination.

"All the evidence is that all the other attractions are surviving and doing very well," said Abraham Pizam, director of the Dick Pope Sr. Institute for Tourism at the University of Central Florida. "There is no evidence yet that Disney's growth has hurt anyone."

In recent years, only one major Florida attraction - Boardwalk & Baseball - has closed. The B&B park, about 30 miles south of Disney, never enjoyed a strong following.

That park was closed last year after being bought by Anheuser-Busch, the St. Louis brewery company that also owns Busch Gardens. The $1.1 billion deal also gave Busch ownership of five Sea World parks and Cypress Gardens, a botanical park near Winter Haven, Fla.

Local experts say the closing of Boardwalk & Baseball and the sale of the other parks had little, if anything, to do with Disney's growth. Instead, they point to the well-documented financial needs of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, the Orlando publisher that sold the parks.

Busch officials soon will begin a joint marketing program tying together Busch Gardens, Sea World and Cypress Gardens. The idea is to boost overall attendance by offering multi-day passes to any of three parks, just as Disney has done with its attractions.

Stork, Busch Gardens' marketing director, said his job would be to convince Florida tourists that each of the three Busch-owned parks offers an experience not found at Disney World. At Busch Gardens, for example, visitors can see and touch live animals.

But even that niche may be in jeopardy. Although Disney will not say what the theme of its fourth Florida park will be, there is speculation it will be an animal park. Stork said he, too, had heard the rumors, but he would not speculate on how such a park would affect Busch Gardens.

Meanwhile, Disney officials make no apologies for their obvious success or the headaches it may have caused rival attractions. Disney World officials said it had never tried to take business from anyone.

"We obviously are responsible for creating a market here of sizable dimensions," said Charles Ridgway, director of publicity at Disney World. ''Sea World and the others are here because of Disney. All have had to compete for business, and some have done quite well."

In some ways, it may be unfair to compare Disney with its smaller rivals, especially when it comes to spending money and attracting tourists, said John Rutherford, spokesman for the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"You don't have to make a billion dollars to make a lot of money, and you don't have to spend a million dollars to attract a lot of people," Rutherford said. "Nobody is going to outdo Disney, but there are a lot of people in this town who have made tons of money from being number two, or number 20, for that matter."

Church Street Station, an entertainment complex in downtown Orlando, is an example. Though it does almost no national advertising, its bars and nightclubs are popular enough to be listed as one of Florida's top 10 attractions.

"We are an attraction that survives off the national marketing of the large attractions like Disney," said Frank Bone, vice president of operations for Church Street Station. "We are surviving on the overflow, and we expect that to continue."

Indeed, investors and real estate developers continue to flock to Central Florida. According to a recent Laventhol & Horwath study, the Orlando area has the largest number of hotel rooms in the nation - just under 70,000 as of last March 31, surpassing New York and Las Vegas.

As a result, Orange County now boasts a convention industry that last year had revenue exceeding $1 billion. But even that market is being challenged by Disney, which will have about 20,000 hotel rooms, with meeting facilities added, by the end of the decade.

Despite the rapid growth in hotel construction, the area has one of the highest occupancy rates in the nation - 82 percent, second only to Honolulu, where hotels average 89 percent occupancy.

Pizam, at the Dick Pope Sr. Institute, said that seems to say that, despite the area's explosive growth, Orlando's hospitality and tourist industry is not near saturation yet.

Investors, he said, "look at the area and see that there is more and more room for growth. No one knows when it will level off."

Seaside communities as far away as St. Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach are trying to cash in on Disney's popularity by selling themselves as companion destinations.

Consider the latest advertising slogan of Pinellas County, home of St. Petersburg and the white-sand beaches along the Gulf Coast: "Walt Disney World Resort and the Pinellas Suncoast: Two great destinations, one great vacation."

"Any organization such as Disney that can develop 30 million visitors, we certainly want to work closely with them," said Bill Sheeley, director of the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council. "If we can get just 10 percent of those visitors, we have over 3 million people."

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