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Disney's Florida parks face sluggish prospects

By Mike Schneider

Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Mary Poppins, normally swamped by autograph-seeking children, stood alone at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center, a wide ruby-lipstick smile on her face.

The worker playing the Disney character waited some more, but no children with autograph books or cameras walked past. When a group of adults finally passed, she shouted a "Hello" to get their attention.

"It's just kind of dead," remarked Ginger Bullard, of Cookeville, Tenn., who sat with her husband, Victor, at the entrance of one of the Epcot attractions.

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Never fully recovered from the attendance dip that followed the Sept. 11-induced tourism slowdown, Disney's Florida parks face smaller crowds with the prospect of war with Iraq so close.

That comes on top of an attendance dip in February blamed on the federal government's decision to raise the terrorist threat to Code Orange and snowstorms in the Northeast.

"Any other recession or gas problem didn't last this long," said Steve Baker, an Orlando-based theme-park consultant. "The problem with this is there are so many uncontrollables. ... It's difficult to make plans or projections since everything is in limbo."

Walt Disney World spokeswoman Rena Callahan said she couldn't comment on attendance figures. But in the year following the Sept. 11 attacks, international visitors to Walt Disney World declined by more than 20 percent. The four parks saw attendance drop to 37.5 million last year from 39.7 million in 2001, according to Amusement Business, a trade magazine.

Disney's Florida parks, where about two-thirds of visitors come from out of town, imposed a hiring freeze and cut back hours last month. Disney's California parks have fared better: About two-thirds of their attendance comes from local visitors.

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