DAYTONA BEACH — When Volusia County hospitality veteran Gary Brown first opened a hotel in Daytona Beach on April 1, 1971, there was a lot of speculation about the potential impact of a new tourist attraction that would open six months later in Orlando.
“When we first started out, it was the year Walt Disney World opened,” said Brown, 73, who retired earlier this year after 50 years as owner of the 91-room Sun Viking Lodge in Daytona Beach Shores.
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“The speculation at the time was all about, ‘Is it going help Daytona or kill Daytona?’” Brown said. “Nobody knew exactly what to expect.”
It started with the Magic Kingdom: Four parks and 50 years ago, Walt Disney World opened.
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As Walt Disney World celebrates its milestone 50th anniversary in October, five decades of expansion that would’ve been unimaginable in 1971 has transformed Central Florida into arguably the No. 1 tourist destination in the world.
Yet its impact on Daytona Beach can still fuel debate among longtime hospitality industry figures, an indication of a complicated relationship that has changed as Disney’s imposing shadow has eclipsed many of its competitors.
“I think they’ve been great for the area and they’ve also been not-so-great for the area,” Brown said.
'They needed us'
At the start, it was something approaching love at first sight, said Bob Davis, president and CEO of the Lodging & Hospitality Association of Volusia County. When Disney opened, he was running the Hawaiian Inn, one of the marquee beachside hotels in Daytona Beach.
“They needed us in the beginning,” Davis said, recalling an attitude of partnership between the newly opened theme park and the well-established beach destination.
Guests could browse Disney brochures and buy Magic Kingdom theme-park tickets in hotel lobbies, then walk outside to board charter buses to the attraction, Davis said.
“There would be between eight and 15 buses a day,” he said. “They would line up along Atlantic Avenue for folks to take a day-trip to Disney. They didn’t have all those hotels in Orlando at that time.”
Larry Kelly, who served as Daytona Beach mayor for 12 consecutive terms from 1974-1993, also recalls the impact of Disney’s arrival.
“Change is always difficult to make,” said Kelly, 86. “Some people liked it and some people didn’t, but it gave Florida a great economic shot. It was the beginning of a lot of other things happening because of Disney World. It shot us in the arm with adrenalin to do better.”
Disney’s arrival even inspired the development of a short-lived, ill-fated attraction touted as competition for Mickey Mouse. The brainchild of motel developer and area visionary O.L. “Jack” White, Marco Polo Park opened on a 5,000-acre lot straddling the Volusia-Flagler county line in December 1970.
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As the name suggested, the park was divided into sections, each one representing a country that Venetian merchant-explorer Marco Polo explored in his famed 13th-century journeys. Potential for the park’s success prompted the state to spend $500,000 to build an exit from Interstate 95 at Old Dixie Highway, at that time a remote stretch of highway.
Alas, the park closed without fanfare in 1975.
“Marco Polo Park was Daytona’s attempt to get the Disney crowd, the theme park and attraction crowd, to come to Daytona,” said Scott Smith, a hospitality professor and director of graduate studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. “’You can do Disney for two days and then you can come to Daytona and we have our own park here.’”
Around that same time, another Disney-inspired idea was a big success at the Sun Viking Lodge.
One of the hotel’s signature amenities, its kid-friendly 60-foot waterslide, was a concept hatched after a visit to River Country, a newly opened water park at Disney World in the 1970s, Brown said.
“We had a blast going down the slides,” Brown said. “On the way home, I told (my wife) Barbara, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to come up with a miniature version of that?’”
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Brown recalls that the idea took months to receive city and state permitting approval, a process that involved dozens of round-trips to Jacksonville to deliver updated plans to a dubious state inspector in the pre-email era.
Ultimately, the effort was worth it, he said. The slide still attracts families after five decades.
The Disney World honeymoon ends
By the mid-1980s, the Disney-Daytona Beach honeymoon had started to wane.
Disney opened its second theme park, Epcot, in 1982, followed by Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) and nighttime entertainment complex Pleasure Island (now Disney Springs) in 1989.
More attractions would debut over the next decade, including the Blizzard Beach waterpark and 580-acre Animal Kingdom zoological park, offering fewer reasons for guests to venture off Disney property.
“As Disney continued to add attractions, it basically took all the other options out,” said Smith, the tourism professor. “In the beginning, people used to stay maybe three days at Disney and three days at beach. Now, the beach is no longer kind of connected with the Disney trip.”
Expansion by Disney and its competitor Universal also spurred an explosion of hotel-room inventory that has swelled to roughly 128,000 rooms in the Orlando market that includes Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.
By comparison, there are roughly 13,000 hotel rooms in the Daytona Beach area, out of a total of approximately 18,500 rooms in Volusia County, according to Davis, of the hotel association.
The spirit of partnership is long gone, said Evelyn Fine, president of Mid-Florida Marketing Research, who has compiled Volusia County tourism data for more than 45 years.
“I have watched Walt Disney World from time they came in, sort of pleading for partnership from hotels in this market,” Fine said. “That lasted for a while, but then Disney started looking around to keep guests there for a longer period of time. They started building hotels, water parks, anything that would increase length of stay. Slowly but surely it started to erode that partnership.”
Disney’s expansion isn’t the only factor that has changed, Smith said. Over the years, the deregulation of the airline industry also has affected the notion of the traditional summer family road trip, a ritual that favored destinations such as Daytona Beach.
“Drive vacations are where you would plan stops along the way,” Smith said. “Maybe we’ll spend two days in Daytona Beach and then spend some time at Disney. Now, no-frills low-cost airlines have opened up the affordability of flying. A family of four can get on an airplane, get to Disney quicker and spend less time traveling.”
Air travel also plays into Disney’s interest in keeping guests at its attractions, Smith said.
“If you don’t have your own car, you’re sure not going anywhere,” he said. “You’re certainly not going to the beach.”
Disney offers worldwide recognition
On the positive side, Disney’s status as perhaps the world’s best-known family tourist attraction offers Daytona Beach and other Central Florida destinations an unmatched opportunity to reach potential visitors, Smith said.
“In essence, Disney has planted the flag that Central Florida is the theme-park center of the universe and, by extension, the tourist attraction center of the universe,” he said. “Daytona Beach, as a destination in Central Florida, has worldwide recognition.”
Disney’s influence also has shaped the careers of some hoteliers now working in Daytona Beach.
Stu Bloomberg, general manager at Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Daytona Beach On The Ocean at 940 N. Atlantic Avenue, worked for six years at hotels in the shadow of Walt Disney World in Orlando. His office is adorned with Disney memorabilia and he regularly wears a Disney-themed apron as he greets guests at the hotel’s breakfast area.
“I’ve been a big fan ever since I was a little kid,” Bloomberg said. “We invoke the Disney magic of guest satisfaction at our hotel. It has rubbed off on me and I rub it off on my managers, too.”
While acknowledging that Disney’s presence “put us on map in terms of international travel, air travel and conventions,” Fine points out that the magnitude of its competition also has presented challenges.
“With the advent of Disney, business has improved mightily for all of Central Florida, but it didn’t do Daytona Beach a lot of favors,” she said. “I’ve lived through it and watched it with dismay.
“People were so thrilled when Walt Disney World came in to offer guests a day that was different from the beach,” she said. “Slowly, but surely, that eroded into being scared. That has not changed a lot. We worry about what’s happening over there a lot.”
Not that anyone is taking in the welcome mat for the theme-park giant.
“If you have a good restaurant and it’s full all the time and people go and there and wait, the restaurants around it will do well,” Kelly said. “We’re in that category with Disney World. We are a surrounding community and we will do well.”
Brown, who opened his hotel just ahead of Disney’s arrival, echoed that opinion.
“It always has brought tourists from all over the world, a tremendous number of them come to Central Florida and we have an overflow into Daytona," he said. "It’s all been positive, as far as I’m concerned.”
Whatever the challenges, it’s good to be neighbors to “the tourism capital of the world,” Davis said.
“Nowhere in the country is there anything bigger than that,” he said, “and we are grateful for it.”
Source : https://www.news-journalonline.com/story/news/local/2021/10/14/disney-world-celebrates-50-look-its-impact-daytona-tourism/8424689002/2584