Disney puts clean image on line

February 09, 1992|By John Handley | John Handley,Chicago Tribune

In today's cloudy financial climate, Disney's new real estate venture could be risky -- much riskier than Mr. Toad's Wild Ride or the Pirates of the Caribbean.

But if anyone can conjure up a happy ending, it will be Mickey Mouse & Co.

Putting its squeaky-clean image on the line, Disney is taking the plunge into time sharing, an industry with a less than Snow White reputation.

Time sharing was tarnished, especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s, by the high-pressure sales tactics and bad-faith promotions employed by some fast-buck operators. But 10 years ago Florida passed one of the nation's first and toughest laws to regulate time sharing, and other states have followed suit.

Now, Disney's entry into the field may inject new credibility into an industry that sells vacation properties by the slice.

"We're thrilled to see Disney in the business," said Tom Franks, president of the American Resort and Residential Development Association, a time-share industry trade group based in Washington. "We see it as evidence of the maturity and acceptance of the time-share concept."

Disney promises to transform time-sharing with a unique approach. And it prefers to call time sharing "vacation ownership."

"We're going to do it differently," said Mark Pacala, general manager of Walt Disney World Resort, which officially opened Dec. 20 with 51 completed accommodations. The new development is on the grounds of 28,000-acre Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., which has become the time-share capital of the nation.

"The Disney name is on it, and it would be very serious to tarnish that," Mr. Pacala said. "While it has sprung from time sharing, it is the next generation."

Starting at a minimum price of $11,730, vacationers can buy a real estate interest in the resort.

A total of 197 units are planned overlooking the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course. A Florida Keys motif has been chosen, including tin roofs and gingerbread pastel exteriors for the studios, and one-, two-, and three-bedroom lodgings. If the planned units sell out, the resort will be expanded to 501 units, Mr. Pacala said.

Disney's time-share resort, which is just down the road from Disney-MGM Studios, the newest major attraction at the park, offers many amenities, including a clubhouse, restaurant, swimming pool, tennis courts, a health club and a marina on a canal.

Most time shares are sold by the week for a specific time each year, but Disney's is based on a point system that offers greater flexibility.

For $11,730, members of the Disney Vacation Club receive 230 points, which can be used for a one-week stay in a two-bedroom unit during the mid-season (May, June, September and October). But if you want to go in the busy season, you'll have to buy 310 points, for $15,600.

Mr. Pacala said options are innumerable. Instead of a one-week stay, members can split their time into a series of short getaways, even as short as one day.

Another variable is the size of the unit used. For example, 230 points will pay for three weeks in a studio in the off-season, or three to four days in a three-bedroom villa in the busy season.

"The flexibility is what sets the Disney Vacation Club apart from similar plans," Mr. Pacala said. "The point system allows members to select the type of vacation best suited to their needs, particularly as those needs change from year to year."

Members don't even have to visit Disney World each year. They can use their points to vacation at domestic and foreign resorts offered through an agreement with Resorts Condominiums International.

RCI, which is based in Indianapolis, is the world's largest vacation ownership exchange company. Switching to a one-week stay at an RCI resort costs $75 and can be done through the Disney reservations service.

Bill McConnell, RCI's senior vice president and chief operating officer, said Disney owners can exchange for the top 125 resorts from the 2,000 in RCI's worldwide inventory.

Mr. McConnell called Disney's project "an exciting development for time sharing" that "will cause everybody to take notice and shows Disney believes time sharing is a viable product."

John Reinhardt, RCI's vice president of resort services, said the new Disney development should add luster to the Orlando time-share market, which has been one of the bright spots in the gloomy economy.

"There has been continued growth and development in Orlando, even though no lending money is available for time-share projects in other parts of the state," Mr. Reinhardt said. He added that time-share sales in Orlando amount to about $250 million a year.

Disney launched a time-share resort to capture some of that cash.

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