Orlando Impressions A Letter From The Magic Kingdom

May 15, 1994|By ANDREW RATNER

Things my family did not see during a recent trip to Walt Disney World:

* Nancy Kerrigan, by herself or with her new pal, Mickey Mouse.

* Michael Jackson's "Captain EO" film, which is still playing at Epcot Center despite the entertainer's recent public-relations problems. (The movie was apparently broken the night we went to see it.)

* Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, who was too busy bailing out Euro Disney to vacation in Florida.

Things my family did see at Disney World:

* A business where service is not just a slogan. Disney virtually throws workers at you: Attendants direct you to the exact parking space you should use. The restaurants run efficiently even during the lunch crush. Employees ensure that visitors get on the space-age monorail in a safe, orderly, rapid manner even when thousands of folks are spilling out of the park at evening's end.

* An attraction that takes the theme park concept to another level. If you live in the mid-Atlantic states and have children, chances are you've hit some of this region's amusement parks: Hershey Park and Sesame Place in Pennsylvania. Kings Dominion or Busch Gardens in Virginia. Great Adventure in New Jersey. Adventure World (formerly Wild World) in Largo, Md. They're all enjoyable, but none comes close to Disney's feel for detail and drama.

* That rare man-made creation -- I say man-made because the beach, caves, forests, etc., often accomplish this -- capable of enthralling all age groups.

Disney's name has been invoked often in this region during the past several months.

The company's proposal to build a theme park based on American history and culture in Northern Virginia dominated the Virginia Legislature last winter -- even more than the proposed building of football stadiums overwhelmed the start of the Maryland General Assembly. Disney's America park is due to open near Manassas in 1998.

Maryland itself was recently injected into the Disney debate after it was revealed that Disney was negotiating with the Orioles to make the team's spring training home at Walt Disney World.

Disney, in turn, might opt to do some kind of development -- not a theme park -- in the Middle Branch area behind the hugely successful Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The Florida-Baltimore connection is still sketchy, but the mere thought of Disney involvement has urban planners and economic development boosters salivating. Almost anything Disney touches near the Inner Harbor would seem a winning complement to the burgeoning tourist area downtown.

That is not the universal reaction to Disney's plans in Virginia. Concerns range from infringement on the nearby Civil War battlefield, to the development of thousands of agricultural acres, to aversion by people apparently not familiar with Disney that it's not up to the retelling of American history.

It certainly is; among others, Robert Adams, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, editorialized in Smithsonian magazine recently in support of the project's concept and Disney's ability to spur greater interest in American history.

Two of the things I found striking about a visit to Disney World may have implications for the proposed development 60 miles southwest of Baltimore.

While an old ride at the Magic Kingdom (and still possibly its most enjoyable) celebrates the virtues of "A Small World," the crowd at Disney seemed fairly homogeneous -- or another way of putting it, extremely white. Disney doesn't release figures on racial makeup of its clientele, a spokesman said, but its audience was noticeably not multiethnic, at least when we visited.

If that observation was true, Disney may be no different than the theme park industry as a whole. A 1993 survey by the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions indicated that black visitors make up about 5 percent of the audience, less than half the percentage of African-Americans in the U.S. population.

Certainly, Disney's characters and stories would seem to enjoy a cross-cultural appeal. Perhaps Disney's America would attract a more mixed audience, being closer to the black middle and upper classes of the Northeast.

My other observation about Walt Disney World is that the problems of clutter and sprawl and tacky commercialism around Orlando -- the plastic alligators, the flashing marquee signs, buildings shaped like giant citrus -- are the fruits of less discriminating entrepreneurs.

From the major highways, you can't even detect Disney's resort, tucked as it is within 30,000 acres. It's the Columbia Mall of theme parks: inherently commercial, but you can't see it from the road. About a quarter of Disney's property is administered by The Nature Conservancy as a wildlife preserve.

As Prince William County sets the zoning groundwork for Disney's America, its main planning and zoning challenge will be to limit what others will want to effect around the park. It won't be the mother ship that'll be unsightly; it'll be all the barnacles clinging to it for existence.

As for Maryland, alas, it didn't land the 12,000 jobs Disney says it will be bringing to Virginia for this venture, but it will get some side benefits: spillover business from this immense tourist magnet, a possible link to Orioles baseball, and a trip that now takes a few hours by plane will be cut to less than two hours by car by a family entertainer that has no equal.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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