Disney amusement empire's success story just goes on and on

December 15, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

KISSIMMEEK, FLA. — KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- It's breakfast time at one of the zillion hotels that feed off Disney World, and here we are with the Bravo family of Ecuador: Poppa Bravo, Momma Bravo and two little Bravos restlessly eating their porridge.

Truth be told, all of the Bravos are pretty darned eager to head back to Disney World, and this is not because of the big anniversary celebration at the Theme Park of the Universe.

It is because, well, because Disney World is Disney World, an ever-evolving mega-resort that has redefined the way Americans and many other people vacation.

On this, its 20th anniversary, that's all it needs to be.

"It's beautiful, it's fun, it's safe," says Galo Bravo, an architect who brought his family from Quito for a three-week Florida vacation. "There's always something new. Why wouldn't we go back?"

This, of course, is calliope music to the ears of Disney executives. Although attendance has slipped a bit recently, millions of people still pay big bucks to twist through the turnstiles. The real theme of this park is Money Mania.

But this isn't the place for that. This is the place for an update on what Disney World has built in, say, the last couple of hours and for a look at its plans for the next couple of months.

So, batten down the hype hatches. Leash the hyperbole hounds. It's party time again at Disney World. Disney loves parties because they always boost publicity and attendance and profits.

Let's see . . . this time it's the, uh, right, the 20th anniversary celebration of Walt Disney World, also known to the press release writers as the Bi-Tencennial or Twin-Tennial.

At any rate, anniversary-related events, which really are additions to the normal activities at Disney's three theme parks, began in earnest in October.

At the Magic Kingdom, the popular Main Street Electrical Parade will be replaced by a nightly "SpectroMagic" parade. Daytime visitors will be treated to a "Surprise Celebration" parade that, no doubt to everyone's great surprise, will begin precisely on schedule at 3 p.m.

At EPCOT, a new daytime show will feature fireworks, giant balloons, and boats and hang gliders that will "create a carousel of color on the water."

Several additions to existing attractions also are planned at the Disney-MGM Studios park.

This stuff is pretty tame by Disney standards, but that should not mask recognition of what Disney has created here and how the company has transformed the resort and vacation industry in the past 20 years.

The Magic Kingdom, which opened on Oct. 1, 1971, was the first Disney theme park in Florida and it remains the best-known. But it was only a hint of what was to come.

In fact, on opening day back then, attendance was so disappointing that Disney's stock plummeted. Only 10,000 people showed up; now, on a good day, Disney World does that in an hour.

Along with the three existing theme parks (a fourth is being planned under tight secrecy), Disney has created the Typhoon Lagoon and River Country water recreation areas, the Discovery Island nature area and Pleasure Island, a kind of nightclub multiplex for adults.

And it's not just theme parks and amusement areas anymore.

Over the past 20 years, Disney World has evolved from the Magic Kingdom into a complete, self-contained resort. In fact, it essentially has transformed the whole concept of a resort.

"There's no stopping Disney," says Tim O'Brien, managing editor of Amusement Business, a trade magazine. "They have so much momentum going for them. I can't think of any other entity, other than maybe McDonald's, that has jumped into the public culture like Disney. They're part of Americana now."

In an area crammed with hotels and other spinoff businesses, Disney itself now runs 11 hotels with 10,468 rooms at Disney World. It sometimes seems like the company opens a new hotel or mini-attraction every day.

Nine other hotels are on Disney World property, but owned or operated by other corporations.

Also found here are five golf courses, extensive convention facilities, nightclubs, beaches. Now in the planning stages is a city called Celebration (naturally) with homes for 20,000 people, all on Disney property.

One measure of Disney's success: Disney World now is the No. 1 honeymoon destination in the world. No word on whether honeymooners prefer Adventureland or Fantasyland.

Of course, other corporations built local attractions in Disney's shadow: Sea World, Wet N' Wild, Universal Studios Florida and more. Although worthy in their own right, they often battle each other for whatever time tourists may have after visiting Disney World, which isn't much.

Disney World's turnstiles have twirled more than 350 million times over the years. Although the sagging economy and the Gulf crisis and war inhibited business recently, analysts say the resort still records about 28 million admissions a year.

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