Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Disney In D.C. Redux

I read with equal measures of interest, nostalgia and amusement this morning that the Walt Disney Company has purchased 15 acres of land at National Harbor in Prince George's County, Maryland, to be built as a hotel resort at the burgeoning convention facility.

A few years ago, that would have set my heart a-reeling with excitement. I've been a Disney geek for most of my adult life, and I've spent a fair amount of that time aspiring to work directly for the company. I was fortunate enough to be an ABC employee for 11 years under Disney's ownership, and it is truly a great company to be a part of.

Once upon a time, I came **this** close to working for Disney directly. Back in 1994, when the company was planning its "Disney's America" park in Haymarket, Virginia, I essentially turned coverage of the story into a full-time beat. I covered Disney like a blanket, and even managed to travel to Orlando to interview several company executives about the project. Aside from airing stories almost daily, I also prepared a 5-part news series called "American History: The Disney Version", which offered an in-depth look at both Disney and its opponents. The series went on to win broadcasting's equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, the Alfred duPont Silver Baton.

I was living in fat city. Although I was doing my best to stay neutral on the air, I was truly conspiring to latch on with Disney behind the scenes. I had a great relationship with the Disney P.R. folks, and I truly believe they would have hired me once construction got underway. My wife and I had even driven out to look at the park site and discussed where we might live. But it turns out my dreams were swept away like so much pixie dust. The week after my series ran on the air, Disney pulled the plug on Disney's America. Appropriately enough, I was vacationing in Disney World when the news was released.

Disney chairman Michael Eisner told me later that the company was simply not willing to engage in a pissing match with the well-funded historians and environmental groups that were promising to spend the next decade suing to stop the project. I won't waste space here crying "sour grapes" over what happened. I've blogged about this before, so you can read about those thoughts here.

Flash forward to Disney's latest plans for DC. It's no secret the company has long coveted the tourist market here. Visitors to Washington tend to be better educated with higher incomes and more discretionary income than average. It's one of the main reasons Disney was attracted here in the 90's. However, I'd caution anyone about getting too excited about this latest news.

First off - Disney is not offering any timetable for when it might build a hotel at National Harbor. In fact, it seems like the company is cautioning it might be several years, and it certainly won't happen without a solid period of economic recovery. National Harbor isn't filling up it's existing capacity, so I'm sure Disney is in no hurry, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's never built at all.

Disney has already said it has no plans for anything beyond a hotel at National Harbor, and at 15 acres, there's no way the National Harbor will be anything BUT a hotel. If you're having visions of new theme parks, you can forget about it. Disney's world view is now global. It will continue to open new attractions and to renovate its existing US resorts, but in terms of new parks, Disney is thinking Shanghai, not Suitland.

If Disney does build in P.G. County, it will really amount to a new form of business for the company - making Disney a corporate travel name in direct competition for the Hyatt and Hilton customers of the world. I do not believe Disney's primary focus would be tourists in this case, because the main tourist attraction - the Mall - is a good half-hour drive away. Disney would certainly offer group tours of DC, and charge a pretty penny for them, too. But I believe this is more of a play for convention business.

Disney is also in the timeshare business, but I doubt it is looking to open a Vacation Club resort at National Harbor - at least, not at first - because the nearest current tourist attraction is a good half hour drive away. The developers of National Harbor envision it someday becoming a stand-alone destination resort - some place you'd take your family to for a week, like Ocean City or Hilton Head. National Harbor is certainly not that kind of a place right now, and my guess is the owners hope Disney will help to bring that kind of flavor to the area. But I think that growth will have to measured in decades, not years.

In any case - if and when Disney does come to DC, I'm quite sure I'll be lined up to see what they have to offer... and depending on what it is, I might even bring my resume with me!

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