Three strikes and Orlando's out

It's something that folks in the know have been whispering since May 1998, back when Disney's Animal Kingdom opened and the Mouse actually saw attendance levels drop at both Epcot and Disney/ MGM.

Further evidence of the phenomenon came in the spring of 2000, when the opening of Islands of Adventure significantly ate into attendance at Universal Studios Florida.

There was a time -- not too long ago -- when Orlando developers thought that Central Florida was another "Field of Dreams," that if you built it, they would come. Just throw open a new attraction, do a little marketing, and -- presto change-o! -- watch the money come rolling in.

Those days are long gone. Which is why, if you listen carefully, you'll hear that travel professionals worldwide have begun comparing O-town to Las Vegas. And not in a flattering way.

"Orlando's overbuilt." That's the current buzz in travel-industry circles whenever Orlando comes up. The theory is that too many over-priced hotel rooms were built in the Orange/Osceola tourism corridor in the mid- to late-1990s boom. These were followed by too many tourist-related shops, restaurants and attractions -- all of which rely on a steady stream of customers to keep them afloat.

Which is just fine. So long as nothing happens that disrupts that flow. Like a recession. Or a war. Or a national tragedy that makes people start questioning the safety of airline travel.

Unfortunately, in a nightmarish version of a Lotto jackpot, all three of these scenarios suddenly came true this fall. Sure, Orlando has had to endure bad times before. The 1973 gas crisis and the 1991 Gulf War come to mind. But these days, what with all of those new shops and restaurants opening along Sand Lake Road (not to mention that massive mall under construction on Millenia Boulevard near I-4) all counting on tourism dollars, the situation is much more dire, the stakes so much higher, than in years past.

Most folks seem to have missed out on the hard lesson that Disney learned from Animal Kingdom and Universal/Vivendi picked up from its Islands of Adventure premiere: There actually is a finite number of people willing to travel to Orlando regularly. And spending millions of dollars promoting your brand-new park doesn't automatically mean that a significant number of new tourists will suddenly show up and start spending their vacation dough on you.

It was this bit of bad news that discouraged Disney and Universal from investing in any major new attractions for their Orlando parks over the past few years. The Mouse took this news so hard that the Walt Disney Co. tabled -- perhaps for good -- discussion of building a fifth theme park in the area.

The realization made more than a few Celebration residents furious. Why? It was a selling point for those who bought homes in Mickey's planned community that they would be just a seven- minute drive away from that next theme park (which was supposed to be open by 2007). With construction of the park presumably canceled, some Celebrants have even talked about filing a class-action suit, all because they think the Mouse isn't honoring one of the terms of their original sales agreement.

Given other problems that Disney is dealing with, a few disgruntled homeowners are a minor annoyance at best. Consider construction problems with Epcot's "Mission: Space" pavilion. This state-of-the-art attraction isn't due to open until late 2002/early 2003. But Disney has had so much trouble with contractors hired to install the ride mechanism that it recently let a bunch of them go. Now Walt Disney Imagineer-ing's research-and-development staff will oversee installation of this cutting-edge technology, which strives to re-create the sensation of weightlessness in space.

"Mission: Space" looms as the obvious anchor for a future come-back-to-Disney World campaign. Meantime, as park officials try to tempt reluctant tourists with the tepid 100-years-of-Walt celebration, observers note that Disneyland's signature castle remains far too attractive a target for terrorists -- and the "Sleeping Beauty" walk-through attraction at that site has been quietly closed.

The official reason that this Fantasyland favorite has been shuttered is that it's "undergoing refurbishment." However, given that no real rehab work is being done on this 44-year-old Disneyland icon (and, more importantly, since no re-opening date has been posted), when can Disneyland visitors expect to be allowed back inside Sleeping Beauty Castle? Just about the same time that U.S. troops persuade Osama bin Laden to come out of his cave.