Three decades after it began bulldozing the cow patures and draining the
marshes of rural Orlando, Disney stands as by far the most powerful
private entity in Florida; it goes where it wants, does what it wants,
what it wants. It's our exalted mother teat, and you can hear the sucking
from Tallahassee all the way to Key West.
The worst damage isn't from the Walt Disney World Resort itself (which is
undeniably clean, well operated, and relatively safe) or even from the
tourists (although an annual stampede of forty million Griswolds cannot
help but cut an untidy swath). The absolute worst thing Disney did was to
change how people in Florida thought about money; nobody had ever dreamed
there could be so much. Bankers, laywers, real-estate salesmen,
hoteliers, restauranteurs, farmers, citrus growers--everyone in Mickey's
orb had to drastically recalibrate the concepts of growth, prosperity, and
what was possible. Suddenly there were no limits. Merely by showing up,
Disney had dignified blind greed in a state pioneered by undignified
greedheads. Everything the company touched turned to gold, so everyone in
Florida craved to touch or be touched by Disney. The gates opened, and
in galloped fresh hordes. The cattle ranches, orange groves, and cypress
stands of old Orlando rapidly gave way to an execrable panorama of
One of the great ironies upon visiting Disney World is the wave of relief
that overwhelms you upon entering the place--relief to be free of the
nerve-shattering traffic and the endless ugly sprawl. By contrast the
Disney resort seems like a verdant sanctuary. That was the plan, of
course--Team Rodent left the park buffered with thousands of unspoiled
acres, to keep the charmless roadside schlock at bay.
As Orlando exploded, business leaders (and therefore politicians)
throughout the rest of Florida watched and plotted with envy. Everyone
conspired for a cut of the Disney action, meaning overflow. The trick was
to catch the tourists after they departed the Magic Kingdom: induce them
to rent a car and drive someplace else and spend what was left of their
vacation money. This mad obsession for sloppy seconds has paid off
big-time. By the year 2000, the number of tourists visiting the Orlando
area is expected to reach forty-six million annually. That's more than
the combined populations of California and Pennsylvania storming into
Florida every year, an onslaught few places on earth could withstand.
Many Disney pilgrims do make time to search for auxiliary amusement in
other parts of the state. High on the list are the southernmost chain of
islands known as the Keys, where I live, and where only one road runs the
length of the archipelago. Maybe you can appreciate my concern.
Excerpted from Team Rodent by Carl Hiaasen. Copyright © 1998 by Carl Hiaasen. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.