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Credit: Orlando Sentinel



This old park


After 33 years as the flagship of Orlando's tourism fleet, Walt Disney's pride and joy is showing signs of wear and tear.


By Jean Patteson and Linda Shrieves | Sentinel Staff Writers

Posted March 27, 2004



The tram jolts and rattles across the asphalt from the Pluto parking area to the ticket center near the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World.


It's a jarring ride. Although the parking lot fence posts are bright and shiny, the painted lines have faded, and the parking lot, itself, badly needs repaving.


It's the first thing visitors experience on their way to the Magic Kingdom, a first impression that makes some wonder: Is the park starting to show signs of wear and tear?


In recent months, Disney stockholders and fans have bashed CEO Michael Eisner for paying more attention to the theme parks' bottom line than the spit-and-shine finish founder Walt Disney required.


To check out their complaints, the Sentinel asked two local experts and one longtime fan to visit the Magic Kingdom with reporters to see if this 33-year-old Mouse House is beginning to look like an episode of This Old House.


Surveying the park were certified building inspector Hank Goldberg, owner of Certified Building Inspectors in Maitland since 1976; horticulturist Randy Knight, owner of Poole & Fuller Environmental Services in Orlando since 1975; and Daniel Bauer of Orlando, a former president of a Disney fan club who has visited the Magic Kingdom more than 500 times since it opened.


All three spotted signs of aging and less-than-perfect maintenance in the 70-acre kingdom. Disney executives would beg to differ.


Flaws included worn walkways and steps, rotting wood, scratched and chipped stucco, peeling paint, rusted railings, faded awnings and yellowing plants.


A restroom near the ticket booths was awash in water and unraveled toilet paper, and an outdoor restaurant in Liberty Square had wet benches and tables littered with used paper plates, liberal sprinklings of powdered sugar and funnel-cake crumbs. Although members of the park's legendary "sweeper-upper" corps still can be spotted, litter seems to linger on the ground longer.


The consensus: All appear to be signs of cutbacks in funding for staff and regular maintenance.


At the same time, our experts point out they were viewing the park through exceptionally critical eyes, eyes that were trained to expect cleanliness and perfection by Walt Disney himself.


"I don't want the public to see the world they live in while they're in the park," Disney was quoted in the coffee-table history book Walt Disney World: The First Decade (Disney, 1982). "I want them to feel they're in another world."


Through the years, Disney parks became the standard by which other theme parks were measured.


"I feel guilty about complaining. It's still beautiful," says Knight. "I doubt most people would notice all the little things we're noticing."



Expectations are great


Disney officials dispute the cutbacks theory, and also the perception of some visitors that appearances and maintenance in the Kingdom are not quite up to snuff. However, officials would not provide comparable figures from years past, saying they were proprietary.


"We ask our guests every day how we're doing, and 90 percent of the time they say we're doing a great job," says Bill Warren, vice president of public affairs and community relations. "Even diamonds have flaws if you look close enough. We just try to stay focused on making our guests happy, and it's what they think that really counts.


"I really don't know [why they say negative things]," Warren says. "Maybe for the same reason people say the newspaper's not as good as it used to be. Everybody's got an opinion. You know what they say: You can't please all the people . . . [all the time]."


About $100 million is budgeted for park maintenance and custodial work this year, says Trevor Larsen, the newly appointed vice president for engineering services at Walt Disney World. Although he would not say what the figure was five years ago, it was "certainly less [than this year] and has grown annually at a rate faster than inflation based on facility needs," says Warren.


"We're spending more money on the Magic Kingdom than ever in the past. The pot is bigger," Larsen adds, "but more is being spent behind the scenes than 'on stage' " -- Disney-speak for "in view of visitors."


Both the number of employees in the park and the number of labor hours worked are greater today than five years ago, says Phil Holmes, vice president/Magic Kingdom. "We have more people, and they're paid more," he says, but he would not provide specifics.


The park's 72 restrooms are cleaned as frequently as ever, Holmes says. And employees are encouraged to notice and report problems in the park.


Even so, Disney fans express dissatisfaction on a couple of Web sites. Disgruntled visitors to wdwblues.com comment on "the steady decline in just about everything." Visitors to the usually cheery laughing place.com lately are sounding off on the upkeep of the Magic Kingdom with comments such as: "The queue for Pirates [of the Caribbean] was disgusting, it had so much trash in it . . . the seats in PhilharMagic are already ripping and the wood on the armrests is also in shabby shape."


After their park vacation in late February, Jennifer and Tim Stoner of Minnesota felt compelled to write a letter to management, saying "we noticed signs of wear and tear everywhere . . . the parks themselves were dirty and dingy." The letter was posted this week on mickeynews.com.


Not all Disney visitors share this negative view, company executives say.


Guest-satisfaction ratings are as high as ever, says Holmes. Ninety percent of guests surveyed rated the upkeep and cleanliness at the Magic Kingdom either excellent or very good.


Maintaining every aspect of a facility as large and complex as the Magic Kingdom is a daily challenge, says Larsen. The sheer volume of visitors, the age of the park, the amount of equipment, and Florida's hot sun and heavy rains take their toll.


"The expectations of guests are probably higher here than anywhere else in the world," Larsen says. "I believe we're doing as well, and better, than ever.


"But as the park gets older," he adds, "it does get harder."



The blemishes show


From the start of his visit, Goldberg spots problems. A practicing licensed building inspector, Goldberg is president of one of the Southeast's largest and oldest home-inspection companies, which conducts more than 3,000 home and building inspections annually. He also is a founding member of the American Society of Home Inspectors and has written the organization's guidelines on training home inspectors.


Goldberg first notices the badly worn parking lot at the Ticket and Transportation Center. The surface is in such bad repair, he says, that when Disney resurfaces the lot, the job will be costly because crews must first patch the rough spots before paving the entire lot.


In addition, the parking lines are faded and aisle numbers are almost worn away, making it difficult for visitors to find their way back to their cars.


As he approaches the ticket windows, Goldberg, 68, notices more problems. Fluorescent lights overhead shine through cracked casings. Blobs of gum dot the sidewalks, and cigarette butts litter the ground.


Goldberg may be no Disney expert, but he has toured the Magic Kingdom at least twice a year since it opened in 1971. And, as a Central Florida resident who visited the park regularly when three of his five children worked at Disney as teenagers, he says the Kingdom isn't up to its once lofty standards.


In a park where sidewalks and rides are sprayed down nightly with pressure hoses, signs of rust and water rot are beginning to show. The bases of some light posts along the monorail ramp are rusted, and barrels planted with flowers have left rusty rings on the sidewalks.


Main Street USA, with its ornate trim, still amazes visitors. But peer closely at the scenery and there are a few cracks in the veneer: On the side streets, some of the awnings are faded, baseboards are rotting and the paint on shop fronts is peeling. On one side street, Goldberg finds a piece of roofing tile that has fallen on the sidewalk, and a 27-inch-by-4-inch gash in a wall.


The Main Street sidewalks desperately need repaving. The pitter-patter of millions of tourists has worn down the upper layer of the concrete to the pebbly subsurface.


"As with any 33-year-old home, a certain amount of preventive maintenance is required," says Goldberg. "And replacement rather than repair is needed."


Inside "it's a small world," while most visitors happily hum along to the tune, Goldberg looks at the ceiling and spots big chunks torn out of its tile. There are a few cobwebs overhead, and torn carpeting is visible from the ride. Like most of the attraction's water rides, there's a pervasive musty smell.


"Mildew," says Goldberg.


At Tomorrowland's Indy Speedway, the grandstand ceiling has so much surface rust that, in one spot, the ceiling is rusting out. When rust is visible on the outside, there usually is considerably more on the inside, hidden from view, Goldberg says. This could cause ceiling panels to fall.


Additional problems: Outside a shopping bazaar in Adventureland, a decorative fountain is turned off. At the defunct 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride, abandoned metal rails and supports rise rusting from the lagoon, lending an air of dereliction to the area. And in the Walt Disney World Railroad train station on Main Street, the concrete steps are cracking, the exterior wood trim needs painting, some interior walls are dirty, and the stain has worn off the woodwork.


On Tom Sawyer Island, some decorative beams in the fort are so rotten that they crumble to the touch. "They may be decorative," says Goldberg, "but the wood rot indicates a lack of maintenance."



Bursting the bubble


Our problem-spotters were surprised to see gardeners mulching flower beds and workers painting buildings along Main Street USA in full view of visitors, as well as numerous "wet paint" signs in Tomorrowland.


"To see people painting the attractions is a distraction. It's like a cell phone going off in a movie. It destroys the make-believe world you've entered," says Bauer, 39. "They always used to do painting and other maintenance at night, after the park closed."


That's a myth, says Disney's Larsen. "It's become part of the folklore that we're magically able to get things done before the guests arrive every day."


Certain tasks have always been done during the day, he says. "Paint needs a temperature of at least 70 degrees to dry properly, so painting must be done during the day."


Sometimes an attraction is closed for renovations, Larsen says. The Crystal Palace Restaurant recently underwent a $6 million refurbishing behind closed doors. Other times, it is possible to do "open-ride maintenance."


Previously, when Splash Mountain was repainted, the ride was closed for about 14 weeks. "This time," says Larsen, "we decided to do the painting in the mornings, when it's colder and not so many guests are on the ride. We themed our painters in overalls and straw hats, and they did the job in full view. It took much longer -- about five months -- but the ride stayed open."



Horticultural rough edges


Randy Knight looks up at a tall juniper tree in Tomorrowland and shakes his head.


"This has been pruned all wrong. The top of the tree should be over the base, not leaning off to the side," says Knight. Since 1975, he has kept some of the most upscale yards in Orlando and Winter Park blooming, and for more than a decade has taken care of the landscaping at the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens, which won him several beautification awards from the City of Winter Park.


At the Magic Kingdom, Knight also notices dead bedding plants; ragged fronds on palm trees that haven't been removed; bushes that are yellowing, most likely from lack of fertilizer; and shrubs with broken and torn limbs -- evidence of rough pruning or blunt tools.


The lawns throughout the park are suffering from fungal diseases or weed infestations, he says. Although sweeping beds of blue and yellow flowers brighten the gardens in front of the Crystal Palace restaurant, in other areas flowering annuals have been replaced with longer-lasting shrubbery.


"I don't fault them. In fact, I always used to think [the flower gardens] were extremely extravagant," says Knight, who estimates he has visited the park 20 times since opening day.


"Overall, the maintenance is not as crisp. I see a lack of professionalism in the pruning and care. I see a lack of horticultural know-how.


"These probably are things only a horticulturist would notice," he says. "But I think Walt [Disney] would be as critical as I am."



Disney is on the case


Disney officials are aware of such problems, many the inevitable result of time, weather and the toll inflicted by droves of tourists.


"We get one million work orders a year," says Larsen. "We have the technology and systems in place to let us be better than ever with our responses."


Safety is the top priority, he says, followed by reliability, then show quality.


Work has begun on resurfacing and repainting the parking lot, and should be completed by the end of the year, says Holmes. Different methods of fixing the stairs at the Main Street railroad station are being tested. And many wood components are being replaced with plastic, which resists fading, scratching and rotting. Where feasible, stainless steel is being used instead of regular steel, which rusts.


On the landscaping front, the training of Disney's 650 horticultural staff members is "as robust as ever," says Larsen.


The battle with weeds is ongoing, he says, but he doesn't believe there is less color in the park. "We plant three million flowering plants a year. We're in the process of replacing 750,000 right now."


The 20,000 Leagues lagoon will be reclaimed, says Larsen. Later this year, "it's a small world" will be closed for a multimillion-dollar upgrade, with new boats, lighting and audio equipment (but the same stick-in-the-brain tune).


At the same time, a new attraction, Stitch's Great Escape, will replace the closed Alien Encounter in Tomorrowland.



A reputation on the line


A huge fan of all things Disney, Bauer is quick to point out the "fantastic" new PhilharMagic attraction and the "amazing" new "Wishes" fireworks display at the Magic Kingdom, as well as the increased number of costumed characters in the park greeting children.


But he notes new signs of neglect, as well: Puddles of water not squeegeed off Main Street, bird droppings not cleaned off walls and railings near eateries, and green algae streaking the sides of Space Mountain.


He also remarks on things that only a Disney connoisseur would notice: "The garbage cans used to be themed, with beautiful paint jobs. The new ones are just ordinary brown." (Disney's Warren says the brown trash cans are temporary; the vendor who made the themed cans has gone out of business.)


"I know that behind the facade it's a business, and you've got to be responsible to your shareholders," says Bauer.


"But the reputation of Disney and the magic Walt created is being lost -- and it's so difficult to bring that back once it's gone."

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You know what though, Disney is spending a lot more time on refurbishing the rides and making sure they are safe for guests to ride. And with four parks to take care of.... you know, it can be a bit more difficult. I know this is no excuse though. I know people who work at the Magic Kingdom, including one fellow who has been there for 25 years working in the Haunted Mansion with maintenance and they all tell me the same thing. Money is being spent on refurbing the rides.

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But the rides will only keep them coming back for so long. After awhile you just get tired of it and the real attraction of Disney, going to a place that can quite possibly be the most magical place in all the earth, will fade because the place is getting run down. I think they need to set a side some money every year and start replacing some of the stuff thats been there since the very beginning and start repairing things that are long overdue.



Of course thats just my opinion, I could be wrong. :whistle

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Well, they keep adding new stuff.


WDW just got Mission: Space & Philharmonic; a new hotel; and a Stitch ride is now under construction. Also under construction is a new ride in Animal Kingdom named Expedition Everest and another one I think in Epcot, Soaring Over California.


Disneyland is about to open Tower of Terror.

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Yea, the older rides are definitely showing their age. I know the Haunted Mansion needs some major work done to it. Everyday they have to fix things whether it's an animatronic, a "doombuggy" (what we call the cars), or part of the set.

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There's even a rumor going around that they want to build a Villians theme park with roller coasters and big rides like that.

That would be a nice theme, bring in the teen and older crowd in. i'm a teen, and i like disney, but that would make it so much better


that would rwally help them bring in a more diverse following of people


if only everything was free

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i'm a teen, and i like disney, but that would make it so much better


that would rwally help them bring in a more diverse following of people


if only everything was free

I have an annual pass which helps A LOT if you go to Disney a lot within the year. Hell, I am going to Disney this Tuesday! WOOOO!

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i'm a teen, and i like disney, but that would make it so much better


that would rwally help them bring in a more diverse following of people


if only everything was free

I have an annual pass which helps A LOT if you go to Disney a lot within the year. Hell, I am going to Disney this Tuesday! WOOOO! Annual Passes are great for Floridian Residents... specially the discounts...

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