Downtown Disney Dilemma

by Mark Goldhaber, staff writer

Downtown Disney Dilemma

Disney faces difficult decisions amid charges of racism

Consider Downtown Disney. Walt Disney World's nighttime retail, dining, and entertainment district is designed for people to hang out, in hopes that they will decide to pop in to a store, restaurant, or nightclub and drop some bucks into Disney's coffers. But when undesirable local elements start hanging out there, possibly looking to start trouble, how do you tell the difference between loitering customers and loitering troublemakers?

Of late, Disney "identified an increase in inappropriate youth behaviorat Downtown Disney" at the complex, and has stepped up the presence of both on- and off-duty sheriff's deputies in order to crack down on the situation. Some visitors to the complex (particularly Pleasure Island and the West Side) have been subject to being followed, questioned, and even banned from Disney property entirely.

Allegations of racial profiling emerged after it was revealed by the Orlando Sentinel that 45 of 46 people banned from Disney property over two weekends were black or Hispanic. One heavily reported case involved a group of Florida State University football prospects who were banned from all Disney property for life. The mother of one of the high schoolers works for Disney, and the father of another is a civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia. The bans were later mostly lifted after discussion with the boys' parents, with the only remaining punishment being a one-year ban from Downtown Disney.

How did a fun place to "Carpe Noctem," or "seize the night" (as Pleasure Island's marketing slogan once ran) get to the point where it became the focus of such controversy? To really examine Downtown Disney, we have to go back to the beginning, all the way to the late 1980s. Michael Eisner was looking for ways to increase the share of tourism dollars that Disney could collect by creating direct competition to everywhere that people left Walt Disney World to go.

People are going to Wet 'n' Wild? Let's build Typhoon Lagoon!

Universal has announced that it's building a studios park nearby? We'll beat them by opening the Disney-MGM Studios first!

People are leaving to play mini-golf at Pirate's Cove Adventure Golf? Let's build Fantasia Gardens and Fantasia Fairways!

Church Street Station is the most popular night spot around and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Central Florida? We'll build Pleasure Island! We'll put it next to the Disney Village Marketplace to take the people already outside the parks and steer them right to the clubs!

The entrance to Downtown Disney. Photo by Sue Holland.

With the opening of Pleasure Island, that's exactly what happened. Disney guests no longer had to drive into Downtown Orlando to find after-hours fun and music. Business at Rosie O'Grady's fell off, as well as all of the other Church Street clubs, and the place quickly lost its status. Only recently has local developer Cameron Kuhn started the process of rebuilding it to its former glory, this time targeting locals instead of tourists.

And so Pleasure Island became the place to be. With seven clubs, two outdoor stages with live performances, shops, restaurants, street party atmosphere, and a nightly countdown to "New Year's" fireworks at midnight, visitors willingly paid an admission fee just to set foot on the Island.

Designed primarily as an after-hours destination for adults, children under the drinking age would only be allowed entry to Pleasure Island as long as they were accompanied by an adult.

Age restrictions and admission fees created an automatic filter. And those who did get in were scrutinized by security upon leaving to ensure against drunk driving. [I recall once being asked where my wife and I had been that evening and—upon noting that we had spent our time at the Adventurer's Club—being asked to perform the club song and do the club salute as a form of sobriety check.]

The crowds were still nearly entirely vacationers of drinking age, and conflicts were kept to a minimum. While occasionally someone would do something stupid, Disney still had enough power to make problems go away and to keep things out of the newspaper.

But then things changed.

In 1997, Disney opened the West Side, transforming the entire complex into "Downtown Disney." The West Side (and upgrades throughout the rest of Downtown Disney) brought in big names, including Wolfgang Puck, the House of Blues, and Gloria Estefan (via Bongos). Extending the prime alcohol-consumption area made it that much harder to watch for misbehavior and guard against people leaving the complex under the influence.

In 1999, Universal fired back at Disney. When it opened its Islands of Adventure park next to Universal Studios, it also debuted CityWalk, its own nighttime retail, dining and entertainment complex featuring some big-name restaurants and clubs. To compete aggressively against Disney and help draw people away from Downtown Disney, Universal chose not to charge an admission fee for CityWalk, allowing people walking back to their cars from the theme parks free access to the complex, to just stop into a restaurant or nightclub, or even to buy a drink on the street.

The strategy worked. Business at Downtown Disney started falling off in recent years and, rather than looking at its own entertainment mix, Disney decided that the problem must lie in the fact that people could access CityWalk for free. In response, an experiment was undertaken: Disney opened Pleasure Island to all visitors, regardless of age and whether or not younger visitors were accompanied by an adult.

For the first time, parents could drop their kids off at Downtown Disney for the evening to "have fun" unsupervised, and come back to pick them up later. This gave teenagers a new place to hang out but also gave Downtown Disney a mall-like feel. Adults looking for a relaxing time would find themselves surrounded by teens with nowhere to go and nothing to do, since minors are not allowed into the clubs, which serve alcohol, without being accompanied by an adult. It's no wonder that Disney began noting the difficulty with the youth contingent.

With the continued popularity of hip hop clothing among teens, it has become harder and harder for many to identify whether some teens are being fashionable and trendy in their "gang-related attire" (such as wearing a bandana, a do-rag, a tilted or side-turned ball cap, or extremely baggy jeans), or if they are in fact juvenile delinquents or gang members looking to cause trouble. This no doubt makes many out-of-town visitors to Pleasure Island uneasy. But if those dressing that way are just doing it because it's the current fashion and not because they're involved with gangs, is there really a reason to worry?

So Disney has found itself in a tough situation here. If it cracks down on congregating groups of teens who may stick out in their hip hop attire, Disney is accused racial profiling because a large percentage of them are black or Hispanic. On the other hand if Disney does nothing, it is accused of encouraging juvenile delinquency and tacitly permitting the loitering of genuine troublemakers who may be blending in with the crowd.

The problem is, Disney cannot just crack down on people for "loitering" because Downtown Disney was designed for loitering. People can enjoy what's going on in the street, and then (Disney hopes) perhaps saunter into a shop, restaurant or nightclub to spend some money. But how do you tell the difference between a loiterer who is a patron and a loiterer who is up to no good?

Should Disney assume that all teens dressed in gang-related clothing are up to no good, but the preppy-looking teens are all spending money and not out to cause mischief? Appearance by itself doesn't always indicate personality or intention.

Unfortunately, it's both a rock and a hard place of Disney's making. By opening access to all, Disney has essentially turned Pleasure Island into the local equivalent of a mall, but with nowhere for the teenagers to go except hang out in the street. Conflicts were bound to happen.

And yet the open-access policy continues.

And now Downtown Disney can't seem to stay out of the news.

The entrance to Downtown Disney. Photo by Sue Holland.

First, it was the "abduction" of two tourists who were then driven around Central Florida, forced to take money out of ATMs and almost killed at the Osceola County landfill in Kissimmee. Following reports from their home state of Connecticut and the duo's subsequent refusal to cooperate with police in finding the three men that they accused of kidnapping them and attempting to kill them, rumors started to fly about the whole thing being a drug deal gone bad.

Next, a man who became drunk at Pleasure Island decided to try to swim back to his room at the Saratoga Springs Resort across Village Lake. After being rescued when he developed cramps halfway across, he claimed that there was another man swimming with him and that he couldn't find him. Three hours later, after a waste of much time and manpower, it was determined that the second swimmer was made up, and the man was charged with filing a false report.

Next came the crackdown on gang-related activities, resulting in the accusations of racial profiling. [It's not as though the crackdown is completely unfounded, though, as some of those ejected were found carrying weapons.]

Finally, last week a pipe bomb exploded in a trash container in a remote part of the Downtown Disney parking lot. Rumors in that case hint at either a disgruntled employee or someone upset at the crackdown.

But there aren't many options for Disney as it tries to prevent these incidents. It's not as if Disney can be responsible for educating tourists about contemporary urban fashion. It's doubtful that visitors would stand for being educated. But should Disney implement a dress code like some malls have done? If the tourists can't be put at ease regarding the attire of the local teens and the locals aren't really doing anything wrong, what is to be done to find the middle ground?

Disney stated: "Our priority, and that of law enforcement, will continue to be maintaining a safe experience for our employees and tens of thousands of Guests who visit Downtown Disneyeveryday to shop, dine and enjoy our entertainment offerings." But it's hard to find a place to draw the line to give people the perception that they're safe without infringing on the rights of others, especially when stereotypes are involved. While Disney and the Orange County Sheriff's Office undoubtedly try to only detain people that they think might cause trouble, it can be difficult to determine the intentions of the teens, especially in that environment.

One possible course of action is to admit that the open access policy was a bad decision, and that Pleasure Island is an area that would function best with traffic restricted to those who are of age and who pay to gain access to the clubs. For the foot traffic between the Marketplace and the West Side, a walkway outside of Pleasure Island could be created with other diversions so that the loss of the use of the walkway through Pleasure Island (one of the central reasons for the open-access policy) would not be felt as strongly. This would reduce the congregating of teens and reduce the number of "drop-offs," as it's far less likely that locals would enjoy hanging out at the Marketplace.

Another way to address the problem could be to post a code of conduct for Downtown Disney patrons and use that to handle any troublemakers. At least that would be a consistent set of criteria that could be applied across the board to avoid any accusations of singling out any group.

It should be noted that Universal CityWalk experiences many of the same problems. However, as a friend of mine aptly noted, "They're not Disney. The expectations are different." But those expectations may not be realistic. If the expectations of tourists are based on negative stereotypes and fear of the unfamiliar, it may be difficult for Disney to meet those expectations without excluding certain people based on how uncomfortable they make other people rather than objective criteria such as behavior.

There may be no easy answer to this situation, as Disney tries to walk the tightrope between keeping actual gang activity and other troublemakers out of Downtown Disney, while still allowing all potential customers to have consistent and equitable access to facilities regardless of what clothing they're wearing. Unfortunately, as long as the admission policy and the attractive atmosphere exist, it's going to be hard to keep the kids—both desirable and undesirable—out of Downtown Disney, regardless of whether they make tourists uneasy.