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Orlando Keeps Building New Hotels

July 5, 1998

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ Wanted: tourists looking for theme rides and sunshine in a decidedly family atmosphere. Must be willing to spend 4.6 nights in town, drop at least $143 a day and buy hats with mouse ears.

As Orlando keeps building new theme parks and hotel rooms, one of the world’s top tourist cities needs to think about new ways to bring more visitors to central Florida. The 40 million-person tourism market here is going to have to grow by several million more people to support the current expansion.

Experts say that’s not a problem if trends continue the way they have for the past 25 years. Where citrus groves and cattle pastures once stood, this booming metropolis of 1.4 million people now offers tourists six major theme parks, six water parks, 88,000 hotel rooms, 125 golf courses and 800 tennis courts.

And there are more on the horizon.

Already Walt Disney World, the area’s largest employer with about 50,000 full-time, part-time and seasonal workers, has opened a fourth theme park, the $800 million Animal Kingdom. Universal Studios is preparing next year to open a second Florida theme park, the $1 billion Islands of Adventure, and there’s speculation Universal may open two more parks in the next century. Sea World is also deciding whether to open a second park.

Many observers wonder if Disney is thinking about a fifth park although Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner and other officials won’t say what their plans are. Disney has developed only a quarter of the 30,000 acres it owns in central Florida and has room for three more parks. Among the rumored ideas is a sports or history theme park to join the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom.

None of Orlando’s Big Three theme park companies _ Disney, Seagram’s Universal Studios and Anheuser-Busch’s Sea World _ seems to be worried about the increased competition. An estimated 53 million people passed through their combined gates last year.

Just how fast are theme parks and related tourism business growing in Orlando? Consider this:

_ Disney and Universal have opened or plan to open new entertainment and shopping districts and new resort hotels.

_ Plans are under way to build a second Orlando area convention center that would cost $1 billion and have 2.6 million square feet of exhibition space. Orlando already has a convention center with 1.1 million square feet and plans to expand to 3 million square feet.

_ Orlando International Airport is undergoing a $1.2 billion expansion.

_ Orlando is adding another 10,000 hotel rooms by the end of 2000.

_ There will be $10 billion in private construction spending during the next decade.

Orlando should be able to absorb such growth if past trends are followed and the economy stays healthy, experts say. And the major theme parks’ deep corporate pockets should help the city get through any sudden slowdowns in the economy.

People always want a well-cared for vacation destination where they know their children will be safe, Eisner said.

``It’s an idealized way to live,″ he said. ``You reinvigorate your relationship with the people you are with _ your family, spouse or parent.″

Universal Studios Escape president and CEO Tom Williams, however, acknowledged that some smaller theme parks may feel squeezed.

``I think there will be some, you know, reallocation of market share,″ Williams said. ``It’s only logical that there would be.″

There probably is no more room for any new small-to-medium sized parks, such as a Splendid China or a Gatorland, but the existing ones should survive, said professor Abraham Pizam, director of tourism studies at the University of Central Florida.

``Every expansion, we always wonder if we will survive,″ Pizam said. ``In all these years, despite trends, despite downturns in the economy, they survive. They create their own marketing force.″

But one thing is for sure. More tourists will have to come here.

Orlando economist Henry Fishkind said the opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom should boost the number of visitors to central Florida by about 1.5 million or 2 million people this year. The opening of Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure should do the same next year.

By the year 2000, tourist growth may flatten out but it won’t decline, he said. Orlando could have as many as 57 million visitors a year by 2008.

Because the average domestic visitor stays 4.6 days in Orlando, almost a full work week, there’s not much chance the visitor will be spending more nights in town, given that most people only have one or two weeks’ vacation, said Kelly Repass, research director of the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Little change also is expected in how much the average domestic visitor spends in Orlando, $143 per day.

What will happen is more repeat visits by domestic visitors and longer stays from international visitors, Ms. Repass said. International visitors stay longer than domestic visitors, 6.9 nights in Orlando and 15.9 nights in the United States. The goal is to get the international visitors to spend more of their nights in Orlando.

``We compete with the countries of the world that advertise and try to move our tourists there,″ said Al Weiss, president of Walt Disney World. ``So what we’ve got to do is go out and market and sell to the world, bring more numbers of people to central Florida and they will support those parks.″

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