Eco-tourism moves into the mainstream, bridging the gap between entertainment and education.
In one corner: the traditional theme parks. With everything planned and controlled, the Disney World approach results in entertainment akin to processed food. The experience is predictable, reliable, and every guest can count on nearly identical memories. In the other corner: wildlife-oriented eco-tourism. Real and unpredictable, the fickle animals allow some visitors to leave in awe-inspired wonder, while others wonder what their money bought. Two new efforts, however, are bridging the gap between entertainment and education, offering a bit of both -- with the emphasis on interacting with animals. Calling them marriages between the industrialists and the tree huggers wouldn't be too far off the mark.
In many ways, SeaWorld's new Discovery Cove sets the pace when it comes to bringing eco-tourism to the masses. Guests pony up $179 a person for the privilege of swimming with dolphins and interacting with other marine life in a no-crowd, reservations-only atmosphere. SeaWorld says it will admit fewer than 1,000 guests a day.
"I see this product as one foot in and one foot out of the eco-tourism movement. The foot in is the interaction, and if that gets kids and other visitors to understand and embrace what it's all about, then it has value," says Mike Kelley, managing partner of The Florida Cos., a consultancy that specializes in eco-tourism. "The foot out is that it's an artificial environment, and it's pretty obvious that it's a theme park."
An effort with more modest commercial goals and a dedication to education is the Amazing Exotics Education Center in Umatilla in Lake County, which recently launched a new campaign to attract visitors. Amazing Exotics is a 20-year-old animal refuge that has had educational programs for years in which people pay up to $4,000 to take a nine-week class in animal caretaking for endangered species. Only recently has it begun trying to attract casual visitors, charging $29 and $49 for half-day and full-day visits. The 85-acre park may be expanded to 400 acres, and talks with tour operators and travel planners are under way.
Amazing Exotics administrator Chet Rothberg says the expansion may allow it to handle up to 2,000 guests a day.
Attractions where animals are the stars are nothing new, of course. Witness everything from Gatorland to Disney's Animal Kingdom. The dilemma facing parks that try to walk the line between commercial interests and ecological ones is that having too many visitors will kill the very quality that attracts.
The open questions, however, are whether visitors will find the experience worthy of repeating and recommending to friends. There's also the potential for trouble if an animal happens to make the wrong move at the wrong time, as happened at a wildlife reserve outside Denver several weeks ago. A volunteer reached into a Siberian tiger's cage to scratch its head. The animal tore off the woman's arm.
Still, proponents of eco-tourism -- including the Denver victim -- say the risk is very small and the attacks very infrequent. The benefit, they say, is that people tune into the natural world in such a way that they become more conservation-minded.
"Eco-tourism is definitely not a fad. It's a societal shift," Kelley says.
In the News
Cape Canaveral -- Saying it wanted to remove adult entertainment from the community, The Buoy Club began operating a 150-passenger cruise ship as a nude dancing establishment offshore. Passengers pay $100 to board the ship, which then goes into international waters, where local restrictions on nude dancing cannot be enforced. Port officials said they thought the ship was going to offer dinner cruises when it was granted a lease, which they hope to revoke.
Daytona Beach -- The Ocean Walk project has signed its first restaurant tenant. Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurants said it would open its 10th waterfront restaurant in the $200-million beachfront redevelopment project.
Kissimmeee -- Wild Bill's Dinner Theatre and Orlando's King Henry's Feast closed, putting 234 people out of work. The dinner shows' parent, On Stage Entertainment, had been trying to find buyers for the real estate but was unsuccessful.
Lake/Volusia Counties -- A deal in which Comcast and Time Warner Communication would have swapped subscribers died when each company decided it wanted to keep what it had. Comcast would have given up 63,000 customers in Lake and Volusia counties in exchange for Time Warner's system in Indianapolis.
Leesburg -- Florida Crushed Stone founder F. Gregg Brown has sold the company to West Palm Beach-based CSR America for $348 million. Gregg will retain ownership of several companies that were subsidiaries of Florida Crushed Stone. An industry journal reported that CSR was the fourth-largest company in the nation in the field, while Florida Crushed Stone was the 35th-largest.
Orlando -- Sawtek, which makes cell phone components, said it has put its Orlando plant on a 24/7 production cycle in response to increasing business and is looking at building a third plant. The company's other plant, in Costa Rica, already is at capacity.
NBA MVP and Los Angeles Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal has taken over for Arnold Schwarzenegger on Planet Hollywood's list of celebrity endorsers.
Orlando Regional Healthcare System said it will build a $200-million expansion adjacent to Arnold Palmer Hospital to ease chronic overcrowding at the renowned pediatric and obstetric hospital. The Nemours Foundation will contribute $30 million to put a clinic in the expansion; the rest will be financed by ORHS. Construction is expected to begin in May on the first phase. The entire project will be built in five phases and could take a decade to complete.
Siemens Westinghouse Power Corp. will build a 225,000-sq.-ft. building next to its headquarters to consolidate its local sites and allow room for expansion. The new facility will enable Siemens to boost local employment from 2,000 to about 2,200 within a year.
Florida Digital Network announced plans to merge with two other private telephone/Internet companies to create a network that runs from Florida to Maine. The company will combine with Cavalier Telephone of Richmond, Va., and Conversant Communications of Marlborough, Mass., to create Elantic Communications. The merged companies have 18,000 customers in 16 markets, with annual revenues of about $47 million. Elantic will enter 19 new markets within a year, which is expected to boost revenues to more than $90 million.
Universal Orlando has new owners. After looking for a buyer for two years, Rank PLC sold its half-share of the theme park to Blackstone Capital Partners of New York for $275 million in cash. Universal's other owner, Seagram Co., was acquired by French conglomerate Vivendi SA.
Seminole County -- Seminole County's economic development director, Bob Turk, resigned after being accused of writing off more than $500 worth of inappropriate expenses while away on business. County officials say Turk wrote off meals he had with his ex-girlfriend, a school district employee. Turk, instrumental in attracting high-tech jobs to the county, says the expenses were legitimate since he and his ex-girlfriend were both away for a school-to-work meeting.
St. Cloud -- Nashville-based Tractor Supply (Nasdaq: TSCO) has launched a push into Florida, opening 10 stores aimed at selling farm and ranch products to both production farms and so-called "pleasure farmers." In addition to St. Cloud, the new stores are in Fort Pierce, Lake Wales, Leesburg, Okeechobee, Chiefland, Avon Park, Eustis, Sebring and Haines City.
A New Look?
Orlando -- CNL Financial Group has floated a plan to give downtown Orlando a facelift that could cost $600 million to $800 million. The proposal is embryonic, and the company is trying to keep discussions out of the public eye until a more cohesive plan is developed. Essentially, it calls for building a $300 million arena for the Orlando Magic and turning the Magic's current home into a convention center.
The plan also has CNL buying Church Street Station and the empty block of stores Jaymont has been trying to sell for years and constructing shops and restaurants.
Any public money would likely come from the tourist tax, but virtually all of that is committed to the expansion of the Orange County Convention Center. Raising it would be the job of the county, rather than the city, and businesses in the county's tourist district are loathe to commit money to creating downtown competitors.
In an editorial, the Orlando Sentinel called it "a daring plan ... to perform surgery on downtown." What remains unclear is who will pay the hospital bill.