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Disney in bullet train battle

(The Tallahassee Democrat posted the following Associated Press article by Mike Branom to its website on June 24.)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Three of America's biggest entertainment conglomerates - Disney, Anheuser-Busch and Vivendi Universal - are playing a dangerous game of chicken with an oncoming bullet train.

A fight over a high-speed train route for central Florida is pitting Disney against Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando in this land of pixie dust, superhero roller coasters and dancing killer whales.

Disney's rivals say that, if they don't get a station, they may work to stop the train dead in its tracks.

"There are several options, and (trying to kill the train) is one of them," said Frank Murru, general manager for SeaWorld's Discovery Cove.

A state panel is expected on Wednesday to endorse a plan connecting Walt Disney World resort directly to Orlando International Airport as part of a proposed high-speed rail line linking Orlando and Tampa. At a cost up to $2.2billion, it would be the first leg of a statewide train system approved by Florida voters in 2000.

But that route would bypass Orlando's International Drive tourist district, anchored by Universal at one end and SeaWorld at the other. In between the theme parks is the massive Orange County Convention Center, the nation's third-largest exhibition hall.

Universal and SeaWorld say that the authority should not favor one private company over another and that a priority should be serving a public facility - such as the convention center.

And if that argument doesn't sway authority members, the theme parks say, they'll find people in power who will listen.

Murru added that another option would be lobbying to have the Legislature change the route, no matter what is decided by the Florida High Speed Rail Authority.

Those threats are unwelcome, say members of authority.

"The selection of the preferred route in the Orlando area should be a business decision based on which route will provide the most riders and revenue," authority member C.C. "Doc" Dockery said.

Then again, the theme parks may not have to dirty their hands trying to get their way.

Gov. Jeb Bush - never a fan of high-speed rail - may be trying to kill the project himself.

With a line-item veto, Bush on Monday removed more than $7.2million earmarked for rail planning.

Still, Disney appears to have won this smaller battle in central Florida.

According to ridership studies, Disney could provide the rail system an estimated 2.2million "captive market" riders a year - visitors whose transportation to the resort is provided as part of their package tours. The projected revenue coming from those riders is $26.3million a year.

In contrast to Disney's draw, the study shows International Drive would produce only about 530,000 captive market riders a year, producing an annual revenue of $6.4million.

The revenue stream Disney could provide is impossible to overlook when judging the choices.

But the debate over routes isn't all about dollars, the International Drive businesses vehemently insist.

John McReynolds, Universal's vice president for government relations, said the train was pitched to voters as a transit system that would serve the public. But not stopping at the taxpayer-financed convention center, he said, flies in the face of that promise.

Disney, though, insists a route to its property would serve the community. The company says a train route to International Drive would preclude any other transit system serving southwest Orange and Osceola counties.

"We're trying to make something positive happen that will serve not only the best interests of our business and employees, but also the greater needs of our region," Disney spokesman Bill Warren said.

But Disney is willing to play hardball, just like its International Drive counterparts. Although Disney supported high-speed rail on the November 2000 ballot, the company insists it will support only a route that connects its property directly to the airport, 19 miles away, with no intermediate stops.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

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