After word leaked out WED Enterprises was using aliases to buy up thousands of acres of Orlando area swamp, orange groves and cattle pasture, Walter Elias Disney deferred to then-Florida Gov. Hayden Burns to make an announcement.
Walt Disney Co., the governor said, intended to build "the greatest attraction in the history of Florida in central Florida."
Small thinking, in retrospect. Twenty-five years since Walt Disney World opened in October 1971, Disney has transformed the Orlando area into one of the world's top domestic and international travel destinations. To be sure, since Disney controls and plans to build on two-thirds of its 30,000 central Florida acres means the Mouse will remain the powerhouse entertainment giant on the scene.
But Mickey's not alone. And that's what has made Orlando an emerging, eclectic, occasionally tacky, but always unique venture into Americana.
"It's the synergy of all these attractions, any one of which a community would kill for," said William C. "Bill" Peeper, president-CEO of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Orlando is a city of thoroughfares. The most popular is Main Street USA, the turn-of-the-century U.S. downtown street that leads into Disney's Magic Kingdom. Another is the four-lane highway that this October funneled the 500 millionth guest into the park since Disney's debut. And gaudy International Drive is home to factory outlet malls and scores of concessionaires selling T-shirts from $1.99 or cut-rate passes to the theme parks. Orlando itself lies along Florida's "Main Street," the Florida Turnpike.
While Florida attracted 39.9 million visitors in 1994, down 2.7% from 41 million in 1993, Orlando continues to roll. The city attracted 33.96 million guests in 1994, up 4% from 1993, according to D.K. Shifflet & Associates, a McLean, Va.-based research company. Business and leisure visitors spent $14.4 billion in 1994, up 7% from '93.
Bullish on potential, Orlando parks continue to grow, including Universal Studios Florida, operated by the London-based leisure development company Rank Organisation. Roughly 6.4 million visitors attended Universal Studios in 1994, generating park revenues of $317 million and operating profits of $51 million. Paid attendance is up 7.1% since 1991, after the first full year of operation.
In August, Rank secured $2 billion in financing to expand the park into Universal City Florida by 1999, in all encompassing more than 600 acres. Rank and partner MCA currently are in discussions with potential backers to build five hotel properties for a total of 4,300 rooms, adding to Orlando's more than 83,000 rooms.
Rank isn't alone. Sea World Orlando in October announced it's building Key West at Sea World. The take on the Florida Keys destination is scheduled to open by Memorial Day.
Then there's Walt Disney World itself. The Lake Buena Vista attraction officially begins 25th anniversary celebrations next October that will run through the end of 1997. But a spate of new projects were announced this summer.
The Disney Institute, a resort inspired by similar programs at the Aspen Institute in Colorado and Chautauqua, N.Y., will open in February with hands-on activities for adults and families with teens. BoardWalk, a 378-room waterfront resort with 383 time-share vacation units, is scheduled to open in July 1996.
Celebration will open in 1996 as an 8,000-home mixed-used development comprised of commercial, recreation, retail and residential areas. The 200-acre Disney World International Sports Complex will open in 1997 as a training and competition venue for professional and amateur events and visitor fitness.
And the Coronado Springs Resort will open in 1997. The midprice convention hotel has a Southwest style, with 1,900 rooms and suites, a 95,000-square-foot convention center and 60,214-square-foot ballroom.
In direct competition with Anheuser-Busch's Busch Gardens Tampa to the west, the 500-acre Disney Wild Animal Kingdom will open in the spring of 1998. That same year, the company's long-awaited foray into cruising will launch when the first of two $350 million liners sets sail from Port Canaveral, Fla.
"I couldn't imagine a scenario where we would have a fuller platter than we have right now," said Tom Elrod, president-marketing and entertainment with Disney Attractions.
Still, after the development phase is complete, Disney will have built upon just 10,000 of its 20,000 developable acres (another 10,000 have been set aside for environmental conservation). Anaheim, Calif.'s Disneyland, by comparison, has 250 acres, and draws 11 million visitors a year.
The Orlando region's varied growth targets two trends: rising length-of-stay figures and aging audiences, said Stan Plog, chairman-CEO with Plog Research, a Los Angeles travel research company. This is no longer just a destination of families with children, Mr. Plog said.
Some 6.6 million business travelers visited the city in 1994, up 11% from 1993, according to the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. The county's convention center is in the midst of an expansion that will make it the sixth-largest such facility in the country.
"It's like a double helix that just fed itself," said Rod Caborn, president Bennett & Caborn, an Orlando-based marketing and communications company, and a 30-year veteran of central Florida theme parks who has worked for Disney and Busch Gardens.
When will it end? Most are reluctant to say. With more than $4 billion in new large-scale amusements planned through 2000, smaller niche venues will find their share of the pie, but the larger attractions will drive the engine, said Ray Braun, senior VP with Economic Research Associates, a Los Angeles development consultancy.
"The bet is you can continue growth rates by bringing in these really blockbuster attractions, the big gates," he said. "Hoteliers and theme park people are betting, and there's real strong emphasis on that kind of growth in Orlando."
For government officials there, the time has come to take advantage of the critical mass. Though it's been marketing itself through project assignments for years, in October the convention bureau picked its first agency of record, awarding its $3 million account to Cramer-Krasselt, Orlando. For many it was about time.
Las Vegas, for example, outspends Orlando 9-to-1, said Mr. Elrod, whose own account is handled by Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, with media buying from Western International Media, New York. The bureau historically has been underfunded, said Mr. Elrod, and the more attractions that come onto the scene, the more the bureau will need to spend.
"While we're competitive in product, I don't think we're competitive from a marketing standpoint," he said. "The more you add, the more you need to fill."