What hath Disney World wrought? Panorama of economic development has come at a fearsome price.

October 01, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

KISSIMMEE,FLA. — KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- This is what it has come to 20 years after Walt Disney World opened its doors: Juan Puliti and Raul Rigueredoy are stranded a mile away in Pedestrian Never-Never Land.

Just off the plane from Argentina, they scamper along the swale of U.S. 192, six lanes of commercial mega-clutter as overwhelming as Las Vegas' notorious Strip, although considerably less sophisticated.

They merely want to cross the road, get from the Factory Outlet the Travelodge. But traffic is relentless, the noise disorienting. Overhead, 8 feet of neon flash a surreal glare.

Blink: DISNEY SHIRTS. Blink: SALE SNEAKERS. Blink: 50% OFF. On this spot in the year 1 B.M. (Before the Mouse), the greatest danger facing Puliti and Rigueredoy might have been a stray cow. But then, Walt Disney smiled and pointed to a map, and the rest was inevitable.

This, after all, was Florida, which always had a weakness for pandering to tourists, whatever the cost.

We take the tourists' money, the old-timers would say, and they take our soul.

Twenty years ago today, the boom of all tourist booms detonated in Central Florida as Disney's turnstiles twirled for the first of 350 million times. Walt's world brought sheer delight to people from every corner of the real world -- and it brought plenty of bucks to Florida.

Now, to see what the 20th century has done to Florida, you need only look at what the past 20 years have done to the Orlando-Kissimmee area.

It is a panorama of economic development, but at a fearsome price: soaring land prices, rising crime, jammed roads and classrooms, polluted lakes, depleted water supplies.

When it comes to tourism, the old-timers say, Orlando-Kissimmee stands as a world-class monument to greed, even by Florida standards.

"I don't like it," said Jennings Overstreet, whose family made a fortune selling land for hotels and shops in Disney World's shadow. "I can't tell you it didn't benefit us, but it changed things an awful lot, too.

Once a quiet, down-home mecca of citrus and cattle, the landlocked region now is the world's No. 1 vacation destination and a continuing drag on South Florida's tourist business.

More than 13 million people a year visit an area with more hotel rooms (78,000) than almost any other spot on Earth. Passenger traffic at Orlando's airport exploded from 1 million just before Disney World opened to 18 million last year. Before Disney, one of every 20 visitors to the state came to Central Florida; now, it's one of every three.

The population of the three-county area -- Orange (Orlando), Osceola (Kissimmee-St. Cloud) and Seminole (Casselberry) -- more than doubled since 1970 to more than 1 million. The number of businesses, as measured by phone connections, increased sevenfold.

Many here look at their balance sheets and bank accounts and grin over what Walt Disney and his followers have wrought.

One in four jobs in Central Florida is somehow related to tourism, experts say.

"The Disney Corp. has created something that millions of people find attractive on an ongoing basis. People vote with their feet and pocketbooks, and it's pretty obvious that people say this is a great thing," said Hank Fishkind, a private economist who works with Disney.

But the statewide price of such progress can be an addiction to taxes paid by visitors, a dependence that cannot be satiated when tourism slips even a little, as it has this year.

Crime is so prevalent along International Drive, an alternately glitzy and honky-tonky strip just northeast of Disney World, that the Orange County sheriff created the "I-Team" to fight it.

Now, working out of an office above a convenience store and a T-shirt emporium, 11 officers patrol a three-mile-by-four block strip crammed with more than 400 businesses and 13,000 hotel rooms.

"When you're the No. 1 tourist destination in the world, you're also the No. 1 thief destination in the world," said Detective Ray Wood, leader of the I-Team. "They think the roads are paved with gold also."

It all began in the 1960s, when Walt Disney's company quietly bought 28,000 acres. His Disneyland in California had only 250 acres, and he wanted his new theme park to have plenty of elbow room.

The word "perspective" pops up often in any discussion of the pros and cons of Disney World and the growth it stimulated.

"Growth isn't good or bad," said Fishkind. "Growth just is. It depends on your perspective and on how we manage it. I'd say it [growth management] is very good around here."

Many others disagree, including Ed Williams, Orange County's planning director.

"We have not been able to keep up with roads and affordable housing," Williams said. "Land prices close to Disney are astronomical. They're prohibitive if you want to build homes or apartments. So the workers have to live farther and farther away, thus putting more and more strain on the roads."

For years, Disney contributed very little to the roads and other infrastructure needed outside Disney World. Now, threatened by lawsuits, the company is ponying up more money.

Which brings us back to Juan Puliti and Raul Rigueredoy, last seen under that flashing neon sign.

After 10 minutes, they outlasted the westbound and turn-lane traffic and made it to the median, where they sought temporary refuge.

It was a while longer before they completed their journey to the other side of the street. When they finally did, Puliti was asked about his adventure outside the gates of Disney World.

"Busy," he said. "It is very busy here, yes?"


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