Disney's America

November 12, 1993

The stunning announcement this week that the Walt Disney Co. plans to build a $1 billion American history theme park in Northern Virginia can be looked upon by Maryland as the proverbial glass half-empty, half-full.

Anything that makes the Baltimore-Washington region a greater tourist draw can't help but spin off business for Maryland. And while some purists may sniff at people trekking to see make-believe Civil War-era villages or faux factory towns made to evoke what Baltimore once was, "Disney's America" will also tempt people to visit the real McCoy, in Antietam, Annapolis and Washington.

The fact is, though, if Maryland doesn't invest in building its tourism market, it won't maximize the fallout from this development, just as it apparently failed to be considered for it in the first place. Maryland economic development officials never saw this coming (though, in fairness, neither did their counterparts in Virginia.)

But there's no question that Virginia and most other states in the Mid-Atlantic have done more to foster the growing sector of tourism than Maryland. The tourism department budgets of Virginia and Pennsylvania are more than double Maryland's $5 million shop. Virginia and Pennsylvania spend $4 to $6 million a year on advertising; Maryland's advertising budget is about $1 million. Even tiny West Virginia outspends Maryland 2 to 1.

Eighty percent of Americans surveyed recognized (if not understood) the long-running slogan, "Virginia is for Lovers." In Maryland, on the other hand, a wobbly succession of marketing campaigns leaves folks unsure whether this is the land of pleasant living, America in miniature, more than you can imagine, or just beautiful.

If Prince William County, Va., is attractive to corporations such as Disney or Lego, the Danish toy maker which is also considering building an amusement park there, why not Cecil County, even closer to the New England-New York-Philadelphia megalopolis on Interstate 95? Certainly, Maryland has had a pro-tourism governor in William Donald Schaefer, but not enough support from the legislature for building this industry. Clearly, that'll be a job for Maryland native and sportscaster Jim McKay, who was just named to chair a new state tourism development board.

As Maryland is spending half as much to tout itself as its neighbors, it's also getting back half as much in tourist dollars: $4 billion compared to $8 and $9 billion for Virginia and Pennsylvania. Whatever the slogan for attracting travelers, clearly the underlying motto is you reap what you sow.

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