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Skipping the Attractions, An Outsider Looks at Disney World--As a Destination and as a Business

I've always felt blessed that my kids never had an interest in visiting Disney World. They'd rather write their own storybook than stroll through the Magic Kingdom; they prefer exploring the cafes and alleys of some European city to visiting Epcot to visit other cultures.

And I'd done some research on Walt Disney some years back, for a business encyclopedia that had hired me as a contributing writer. I knew that he himself wasn't always a very nice person, that some people had been badly stung by him, and that his famous curlicued signature was nothing more than a marketing gimmick (he hired an artist to design it for him and learned to copy it; his original signature was much plainer).

Still, I was curious. And recently, when I attended a conference held at Disney's Coronado Springs Resort, I chose a hotel at another Disney resort, a mile away.

I had three reasons for staying at the All-Star Resort instead of the conference hotel:

  • It was $54 per night cheaper--saving me $108 over the two nights.
  • Knowing I was going to be indoors all day at the conference, it forced me to get outside and walk (about 30 minutes between the two).
  • It gave me a chance to observe another slice of this entertainment empire.

    So here, looking only at these two hotels and the space between them, are my random observations:

  • The corporation is extremely aware of mobility issues. I think it is the most barrier-free place I've ever seen. The only steps (other than those leading to upper-floor rooms) were on one side of the pool for those who wanted to walk in gradually.
  • Inside each area, everything is well-designed for pedestrians. However, going from point to point is not pedestrian-friendly. There were no sidewalks going from the resort entrances back to the main road, and while there was at least one sidewalk along the main road, in some places it suddenly disappeared, requiring a pedestrian to cross a wide boulevard. There is an extensive bus system, but it's designed to transport guests from hotel rooms to attractions, and not between hotel resorts. It's a smart idea to leave your car in the parking lot, and this means at least the outlying roads are not congested.
  • Of those I observed, the housekeeping and security staff were primarily Latino or black; the restaurant and conference staffs were more diverse.
  • Disney values open space. Development on the property is much less intensive than I'd expected, and along with the manicured lawns and flower gardens, there are lots of pockets of wild forest and numerous small ponds. I doubt the woods are original, judging by the small size of most of the trees, but they've been allowed to generate and flourish. This creates quite a bit of habitat, and animals use it. Mostly, I observed birds--including a couple of gigantic ones, far bigger than the eagles in my neighborhood at home, and many small songbirds. I saw one rabbit and of course, a number of squirrels.
  • Appearances count--a lot! Both hotel lobbies were immaculate, and I actually saw one employee using a litter-picking tool to remove cigarette butts from an ash tray and place them in a trash can.
  • Speaking of smoking, it is refreshingly absent from indoor public spaces. And some rooms are reserved for nonsmokers.
  • And speaking of appearances--both lobbies were glitzy. Coronado spoke of Old Money, a lot of blue pastel, sandstone-colored exteriors, and wood accents. All Star is brash, loud colors, posters of famous performers, and a very contemporary feel. Yet the guest rooms are not at all fancy. The one I stayed in felt like a Motel 6, and I heard from people who stayed at Coronado that it was similar.
  • Not everything is as smooth as it first appears to be. Signage coming out of the All Star hotel lobby is poor, and I got lost twice before I finally found my room (the complex consists of ten separate guest room buildings in each of three themed resorts, sports, movies, and music). The toilet in my room (a water-saving model) needed a second flush a couple of times. I took a certain perverse pleasure in these little glitches in the "well-oiled machine."
  • The pool I tried at All Star had no deep water. Depths from wading on up to about five feet in the center of the pool.
  • Coronado has vast and very flexible conference quarters. There were four or five conferences going at once, in adjoining rooms, yet there was no sound penetration at all. I'm not sure, but I think they could open up all those rooms (capacity about 600 each) into one giant ballroom. And ours at least had an Internet connection, massive projection screen, and other high-tech amenities.
  • Food varies from resort to resort. Coronado Springs offered a choice of light or regular cream cheese with only two kinds of bagels; All Star had only regular cream cheese, but at least four kinds of bagels--and gave two packets of cream cheese instead of one, but charged 30 cents more.
  • With a captive audience, it's not surprising that food is pricy. A burrito that would have been $4-$5 at home set me back $11.
  • The sheer scale is hard to comprehend--and the amount of money this operation pulls in has to be more than many developing countries.

    Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.


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