This time of year, it's important that we remember the most vulnerable members of our community. No, not the homeless — the theme parks. They spend 365 days a year turning tourist cash into smiles, but does anyone ever think about what they need for Christmas? In the spirit of the season, here is my wish list of gifts (with a couple lumps of coal thrown in) that I'd like the attractions to find stuffed in their stockings for the New Year.

Walt Disney World:

A copy of Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination for every Disney executive.

Once upon a time, Walt Disney had a little something to say about outsourcing. Back in the early days of Disneyland, when the staffing needs of the infant park outstripped Disney's capacity to hire and train workers, many tasks were farmed out to outside vendors. Walt quickly discovered that such outside contractors were incompatible with ensuring the best quality experience for his guests. Parking and custodial staff were among the first to be replaced with Disney staff, so that the highest standard of customer service would extend to even the most prosaic of park needs. There was a time when such stories were proudly repeated by Disney's PR department and were drilled into new hires' heads in the once-vaunted Traditions class. These days, it seems a refresher course in company history — like Gabler's exhaustive new biography — is in order for those in the Mouse's boardrooms. That dull roar you may have heard (on the eve of The Lion King opening at the Carr Performing Arts Centre) was the sound of Disney's trade unions protesting the outsourcing of hundreds of the same kinds of positions that Walt insisted be handled in-house. Disney flacks can spin all they like about "efficient business moves"; the bottom line is that the first person to greet arrivals at the pricey Grand Floridian Resort may no longer be an official cast member. Is this the brave new world we can expect from Meg Crofton, the newly appointed WDW president who worked her way up from human resources? When Disney overpaid to swallow Pixar, John Lasseter's appointment as chief creative officer was supposed to herald a new dawn for the parks. But he seems to be too waterlogged from resurrecting Anaheim's submarine ride to notice the rot that's set in on the East Coast. Disney doesn't need more mixed-use development along the Western Beltway, or a fifth theme park (make Animal Kingdom a full-day park first, please?). What they need is a reminder of the simple virtues that brought success in the first place.

Universal Orlando:

A new corporate parent.

A recent Sentinel editorial bemoaning the state of Universal Studios sent heads spinning in the corridors of power at the Mouse's biggest competitor. While I didn't fully concur — you can't slam Universal's timeliness when MGM's rides don't feature a single property from this century — the basic sentiment was dead on target. The window of opportunity for Universal that opened with Islands of Adventure is sadly slipping closed. The Studios have lost some of their luster —though a 2007 replacement for Back to the Future (the Simpsons if we've been nice, the Fast and the Furious if we've been naughty) will help some — but the situation at IOA is growing desperate. Just because it was the best park in town on opening day didn't mean it could coast for eight years without an upgrade. Much of the blame can be laid on the revolving door of owners the parks have endured. The best that can be said about current owner General Electric is that, for an entertainment conglomerate, they make great refrigerators. So maybe, as every third-world orphan dreams, a wealthy celebrity will come along and give Universal the loving home it deserves. Since Brangelina and Madonna are busy, maybe Spielberg has room for another adoptee? Barring that, the Seminoles seem to be in the market for misfit toys; if they can get people to drive to Tampa, they must be doing something right.


A truckload of teeth-whitening strips.

I'll admit that, like most Central Floridians, I took Gatorland for granted. The 57-year-old institution was never the first stop when family came to visit the parks, but maybe that should change. As the tragic conflagration that charred the historic toothy entrance reminded me, watching jumping gators devour chickens is the closest many tourists will come to the old Florida that is being sprawled into extinction. The rapid reopening was a testimony to the dedication of the park's staff and the support of the community. Let's hope the classic '60s gator-maw gate gets its concrete chompers polished to a high sheen again ASAP — all the better to gobble Mickey's crumbs with.

Holy Land Experience:

A revoked property-tax exemption (and a fruitcake).

As a theme-park fan, Holy Land's beautiful facades that conceal a complete lack of rides disappoint me. As a student of history, the imposition of medieval inventions on early Christian theology annoys me. As a Jew, the crass appropriation of sacred rituals to amuse the goyim disturbs me. Most of all, as a libertarian believer in church-state separation (and a local homeowner), the outrageous property-tax exemption that Holy Land rakes in royally pisses me off. Note to Jeb and the Legislature, who did an end run around Orange County tax appraiser Bill Donegan to carve out a special tax shelter just for the Jesus-themed tourist trap: A real God doesn't charge for parking.

Cypress Gardens:

A year's supply of Cialis.

I was glad (in an abstract sense) when historic Cypress Gardens was saved from the wrecking balls, but hoop skirts and waterskis weren't enough to drag me out to Winter Haven. It was the promised installation of the Starliner roller coaster that got me excited. Unfortunately, when it comes to resurrecting this 1963 wooden classic, Cypress Gardens seems to be suffering from coasterus interruptus. Let's hope that the park can overcome the damage done by hurricanes and insurance companies, and finally get its woodie erected in 2007.

SeaWorld Orlando:

Another dancing penguin movie …

Or a blockbuster about singing polar bears. Or dolphins that recite poetry. Manatees monologuing Mamet. Anything to distract the public from Shamus that playfully maul their trainers in front of terrified audiences (as happened last month in San Diego). Then again, maybe that could be their next new ride — it can't be more painful than Journey to Atlantis.

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