As Disney fights casinos, Universal sits on sidelines
By Jason Garcia, Orlando Sentinel
10:57 p.m. EST, December 17, 2011
As state lawmakers weigh whether to allow casino developers to build massive resorts in South Florida, most of Central Florida’s biggest tourism businesses have come out against the plan. But one influential interest — Universal Orlando — has so far remained on the sidelines.
Orlando’s No. 2 theme-park resort, which draws more than 11 million visitors a year, says it has not taken a position on the controversial legislation, which is shaping up as one of the biggest industry slugfests in the state Capitol in years.
The resort’s neutrality extends behind the scenes as well. Lobbyists for the resort in Tallahassee, where Universal has more than a half-dozen representatives, say privately that they have not been asked to engage on the issue. Key activists on both sides of the debate say they have not heard anything from Universal, either.
Universal’s silence contrasts with the actions of other big tourism interests. Walt Disney World has been one of the harshest critics of the casino proposal and has worked to enlist other businesses in the cause. SeaWorld Orlando has publicly said it opposes the measure and any others that would expand gambling in Florida. And tourism groups ranging from the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association to the Florida Attractions Association have made defeating the legislation a top priority for the 2012 legislative session.
Universal will say only that it is “studying” matters.
“At this point, this is still a local issue, and we think it’s too soon to speak out,” spokesman Tom Schroder said. “But we are studying the statewide implications and will be part of the discussion as we see the need.”
Universal usually, though not always, marches in lockstep with Disney World on public-policy issues, and it has fought efforts to expand gambling in the past. In 1994, Universal gave $50,000 to the political group No Casinos to help it campaign against an ultimately unsuccessful constitutional amendment that would have allowed dozens of casinos to be built across Florida. Disney, which argues that adult-oriented gambling is incompatible with family-focused, theme-park tourism, gave more than $500,000 to that campaign.
But when No Casinos was resurrected in 2004 to fight an ultimately successful campaign that allowed slot machines in South Florida, Universal opted not to give any money at all. Disney gave $25,000 to that effort.
No Casinos has been resurrected again to campaign against the new casino legislation. But the group’s president, Orlando political consultant John Sowinski, said he has not yet reached out to Universal for support.
“They’re on my list,” Sowinski said.
Universal’s loyalties in this year’s battle could be divided.
One of the companies leading the lobbying blitz to authorize casinos is the Genting Group, which has outlined plans for a 10 million-square-foot resort in downtown Miami. And Genting is an important international business partner for Universal Parks & Resorts, Universal Orlando’s parent company.
Genting owns and operates Universal Studios Singapore, one of two overseas Universal theme parks. That park, which opened in early 2010, is part of Genting’s roughly $5 billion Resorts World Sentosa development, which also includes a casino. Universal Parks & Resorts, a unit of Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal media division, earns licensing fees from Genting.
Universal would not say whether its relationship with Genting has played any role in its decision to remain neutral in the casino debate.
“We want what’s best for Florida,” Schroder said.
Genting said it has not made any effort to enlist Universal’s support in its Florida lobbying campaign.
“We have not had discussion with Universal regarding a partnership in the U.S., but enjoy a successful partnership with Universal Studios in Sentosa and look forward to a bright future there,” said Jessica Hoppe, general counsel and vice president of governmental affairs for Genting’s Resorts World Miami project.
Some industry analysts say it is also possible that Universal is less hostile to casinos because its core target audience is slightly older than Disney’s. Universal parks, for example, have far more height-restricted thrill rides than Disney parks. And though Disney hosts the child-friendly “Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party” in the Magic Kingdom each fall, Universal stages chilling “Halloween Horror Nights” instead.
Still, Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a Cincinnati-based consulting firm, said casinos could be a turnoff even for Universal’s edgier demographic.
Theme parks and casinos are like “oil and water: They just don’t mix,” Speigel said. “We have found in our research that people who come to gamble are not theme-park-goers. They’re slot-machine players.”
Speigel said the prospect of gambling is likely to be especially off-putting to the millions of new visitors Universal has attracted in the 18 months since it opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter — a themed land based on a series of books aimed primarily at younger readers.
“Universal’s a little different than Disney in that it’s more skewed to the thrill riders, but that’s changed with Harry Potter. Harry Potter has brought back the family segment,” he said. “If you look at that growth, that’s primarily been in the families-with-children segment.”