Terrorism fears close public airspace over Disney theme parks.
Date: May 10, 2003 Publication: The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, FL)
Byline: Sean Mussenden and Henry Pierson Curtis
ORLANDO, Fla. _ Walt Disney Co. won a rare prize on the eve of the Iraq war when federal officials permanently closed the airspace above its theme parks in Florida and California _ ostensibly to protect against terrorist attacks.
Walt Disney World and Disneyland now have 24-hour security zones that put them on par with a select few potential targets in the United States, including President Bush’s Texas ranch, nuclear submarine bases and stockpiles of sarin gas and other weapons of mass destruction.
Without public debate or even a request from the new Homeland Security department, Congress bent its own rules to help Disney secure the no-fly zones at the urging of at least one well-connected company lobbyist.
The decision has angered pilots across the country who accuse Disney of manipulating the nation’s terrorism fears for one, clear commercial aim: to close public airspace over its parks as a way to ban competitors’ aerial advertising planes and sightseeing helicopters.
“Disney tried to make that restricted airspace for years but couldn’t until now because the airspace belongs to the people, not to a corporation,” said Joe Kittinger, a retired Air Force colonel and longtime Orlando aerial advertiser. “They’ve achieved it now under the guise of national security, and there is absolutely no reason for it.”
Disney officials insist they did nothing wrong in convincing lawmakers to order the Federal Aviation Administration to give the entertainment giant special protection for the foreseeable future.
“The sole and exclusive motivation for seeking these restrictions is for the safety and enjoyment of our guests,” said Disney spokeswoman Leslie Goodman, explaining that “enjoyment” meant everything from keeping out “banner ads from trial lawyers” to pilots “buzzing the parks.”
But congressional sources familiar with Disney’s lobbying effort say the company discussed only security concerns, leaving critics to question whether the company was honest in its dealings.
“Disney park officials have wanted to eliminate air traffic over the parks long before 9/11,” said Phil Boyer, president of the 390,000 members of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a group asking the Federal Aviation Administration to toss out Disney’s no-fly zones. “Did they employ lobbyists to convince FAA to finally `ban’ general aviation in the guise of security?”
Security experts say such no-fly zones _ barring planes from flying below 3,000 feet within 3 miles of the center of the parks _ provide little actual protection from terrorism. The job of enforcing the zones is especially difficult above places such as Disneyland and Walt Disney World, where Cinderella Castle is located near busy airports, they say.
A terrorist in a small plane, for example, could fly from outside the zone and reach a park within seconds, they point out.
“Apart from warning away law-abiding pilots, it’s not clear to me what this is going to buy you,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank in Alexandria, Va. “It’s not clear to me what difference this would make unless they’re going to put some anti-aircraft missiles in front of the Castle or something to enforce it.”
However, the no-fly zones do provide an effective defense against Disney’s decades-old business foes, self-styled guerrilla advertisers who try to lure customers away from Disney to area nightclubs and attractions. At its height, the Orlando air wars daily featured biplanes towing banners, blimps and single-wing skywriters competing for attention.
Today, aerial advertisers, such as Kittinger, cannot sell their services if they have to fly above 1,200 feet. And flying in the no-fly zones these days can cost them their pilots’ licenses.
Disney got what it wanted with only 65 little-noticed, highly technical words tucked into in a foot-thick, 3,000-page spending bill approved by Congress this year. Not one of those words was “Disney.”
In February, House and Senate leaders sat down in private to work out differences in their competing versions of the $397.4-billion spending bill.
According to three sources familiar with or involved in the private meetings, Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican who chairs the committee that oversees all federal spending, and Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican in charge of the subcommittee on transportation spending, were instrumental in adding the Disney provisions.
While the bill had originally offered flight protections only to some sports stadiums during games, it now forced the FAA to put the no-fly zones over the entertainment giant’s parks as well.
“Mr. Shelby and Mr. Stevens had some particular interest in adding Disney,” said a House source familiar with the meetings. Shelby sought to include the provision in a private meeting with his House counterpart, Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., the source said. A spokeswoman for Shelby said the senator had several meetings with Rogers but did not specifically ask for Disney to be added.
An appropriations committee spokesman for Stevens, another spokeswoman for Shelby and a Democratic appropriations spokeswoman all confirmed it was added when the bill reached the Senate but did not say by which senator.
A second House source familiar with the process said Shelby and Stevens had been influenced by Disney lobbyist Mitch Rose, who had been one of Stevens’ most trusted aides for almost a decade. Rose, who did not return three phone calls for comment, has worked for Disney since 2000, when he left Stevens’ office on good terms.
Goodman, the Disney spokeswoman, would not discuss the company’s lobbying effort in any detail.
In discussions with Congress, a Disney lobbyist _ it’s unclear whether it was Rose or another company lobbyist _ said the no-fly zones were needed to protect against terrorism, the House source said. There was no mention of annoying banner planes, he said.
“Oh, God no,” the source said. “They were arguing for it on the basis of security. We weren’t interested in doing it for banner ads.”
Records show the company’s political action committee has given Stevens $10,000 and Shelby $2,000 since 1998. In the same period, Disney spent at least $14.8 million to lobby in Washington and almost evenly split $866,000 in campaign contributions between the two political parties.
The Disney provision passed Congress on Feb. 13 without a request from a single national-security agency. It had not been subjected to public or private review by the congressional committees that are supposed to sign off on homeland security and transportation-policy changes, an apparent violation of congressional rules.
Under those rules, the spending bills are supposed to provide only funding for federal agencies _ not dictate policy changes to federal agencies. Though frequently done to the chagrin of many lawmakers, “It’s not allowed,” said Jo Powers, spokeswoman for the House Rules committee.
By earning its no-fly zones, Disney joins some of America’s scariest addresses.
The closest to Orlando is St. Mary’s, Ga., homeport to the U.S. Navy Atlantic fleet’s Ohio-class submarines. Each sub is armed with 24 Trident nuclear missiles, according to Department of Defense records.
Another no-fly zone covers the Anniston Army Depot in Anniston, Ala. More than 2,000 tons of sarin, VX nerve agent and mustard gas are stored there, Army records show.
Similar zones protect military stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Utah and Oregon. Some prohibit aircraft below 10,000 feet.
These and other permanent security no-fly zones were granted by the FAA after a request by the military, the Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security or the Transportation Security Administration. Disney’s were not.
It’s not clear if Disney’s amusement parks would have gotten the protection without political pressure, said FAA chief spokesman Greg Martin. “We would have considered it, but the legislation makes (the FAA decision) moot,” he said.
Other than Disney, the only other U.S. commercial enterprise given the special protection is the Valdez terminal of the Alaska oil pipeline. It handles about one-fifth of U.S. domestic oil production.
The legislation was written vaguely enough to potentially provide no-fly zones over an unlimited number of open-air public areas. But in a letter to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta two days after the no-fly zones took effect, Shelby argued that the FAA should use the provision to ban flights only over the Disney properties and major sports stadiums during games.
“Along with the protections for certain sporting events, it is the intent of … (Congress) to provide protection from certain overflights only for Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida and Disneyland in Anaheim, California,” Shelby wrote in the letter.
Since then, Shelby’s new House counterpart, who recently replaced Rogers, raised the possibility that Congress erred in ordering the FAA to give Disney its special designation. In an April 30 letter to Mineta, U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook Jr., R-Okla., said he wanted to review the entire process.
Pike and other homeland-security experts said the air restrictions will do little to keep a determined terrorist away from Disney but may make people feel somewhat safer.
Richard Bloom, director of Terrorism, Intelligence and Security Studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., said it would be impossible for the United States to equally defend every potential target in the country.
Intelligence agencies have to identify when and where a threat exists and concentrate resources there. And no-fly zones can be part of a national strategy that eases the public’s fear, he said.
“At times, partially or totally, a specific security measure is intended mainly for reassuring the public even if it doesn’t have any significant security merit,” said Bloom.
Military, police and rescue aircraft are allowed to fly through the closed zones, as are aircraft on the way to and from area airports including Orlando Executive, Kissimmee Airport and Orlando International.
Local pilots say even a slow airplane could violate the zone and within seconds stage a terrorist attack over any of Disney’s local theme parks _ long before something arrived to shoot it down.
“These (Temporary Flight Restriction) are jokes. Absolute jokes. But nobody has had the (courage) to stand up and tell the American public,” said Kittinger, who flew 483 combat missions during three tours in Vietnam. ” A dedicated terrorist could fly through it and destroy the target in a second.”
When Congress granted Disney special protection, it ended for now a battle dating back to the 1960s in California between the entertainment giant and aerial advertisers in California.
In Florida, the air wars heated up in the mid-1970s when Bob Snow opened Church Street Station, a downtown Orlando entertainment complex, and bought five aircraft to advertise the venture.
Twice a day for 16 years, Snow sent his planes over Disney to lure customers to his nightclubs and floorshows. Those customers arrived in droves _ more than 2 million a year _ until Disney opened its adult-oriented Pleasure Island in 1988.
“If they weren’t blind, we did it,” Snow said of luring Disney tourists to the complex he sold in 1990. “It worked out well for us. Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus was Church Street Station.”
Adding more color were blimps painted like Sea World’s signature killer whale, Shamu, and Budweiser beer’s red-and-white cans.
Sky writers wrote messages in mile-long letters. And modified banner planes flying at 40 mph towed panels seven times larger than interstate billboards to advertise products from Calvin Klein jeans to Kennedy Space Center and Universal Studios.
These guerrilla marketers were able to exploit the only space Disney could not control _ the public airspace above its parks.
Jim Butler owns Aerial Sign Company in Hollywood, Fla., the country’s largest aerial advertising business. He says FAA restrictions since Sept. 11, 2001, bankrupted more than 100 aerial advertisers and gutted an industry that had earned more than $100 million a year.
“It’s designed specifically to stop the ambush marketers, which in certain cases, we are ambush marketers. Or what I call guerrilla marketing,” said Butler, who has more than 50 aircraft and flew regularly over Disney, NFL and NCAA Division I football stadiums, Major League Baseball parks and NASCAR race tracks. “Of course, I fly Disney. It’s only fair game.”
Some of the first voluntary rules for flying near Disney World took effect in 1998.
That was when the FAA imposed a noise-sensitive area over Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a wild-game theme park, at the company’s request. The FAA requested, but did not require, that pilots stay 2,000 feet above the parks.
A spokesman for Busch Gardens in Tampa, Fla., however, said wild-game experts there say pilots need only stay 500 feet above the park.
It’s unclear when or why, but at some point the FAA expanded the zone to include Disney-MGM Studios, the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, according to a map on its Web site.
Disney also has pushed to close airspace above a theme park it is building in Hong Kong both to “maintain an aura of fantasy” and for “safety” reasons, according to an ordinance posted on the Hong Kong government’s Web site.
Open air space is considered publicly owned in the United States, much in the same way as federal highways. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, terrorism fears helped Disney get what it wanted.
The company worked directly with the FAA to get airspace over its parks shut down. But the agency quickly began granting waivers to certain banner pilots, something that bothered Disney executives who had worked to secure “unique restrictions” for the parks, according to internal FAA e-mails.
Eventually, Disney took its cause to Congress.
On March 17, the Department of Homeland Security raised the nation’s terrorist threat level in advance of the Iraqi war. A day later, it announced a massive domestic security initiative _ Operation Liberty Shield _ which included strengthening flight protections over certain cities.
The FAA made no mention of the congressional orders when it put the new security-based flight zones into effect over Disney March 18, instead saying the parks were “potential targets of symbolic value” to terrorists.
But it did not extend similar protection to any number of other potential targets of symbolic value, including Minnesota’s Mall of America, other Central Florida theme parks such as Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando, and downtown Chicago, home of the Sears Tower, which is America’s tallest building.
Mayor Richard Daley, who had been seeking to ban flights over Chicago, was livid.
“Now, think of that, Mickey and Minnie have it. I mean, I can’t believe that. They get it first before we get it,” Daley told the Chicago Tribune on March 19.
After several influential Illinois lawmakers lobbied Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and the FAA, the flight agency put a no-fly zone over Chicago. But the FAA took it away weeks later when it reduced the terrorist threat levels. Homeland Security officials said it would not be returned until Chicago faced a specific and credible threat.
Disney’s special protection remains, despite repeated declarations by local, state, and national law enforcement officials that there has never been a “specific and credible” threat against either of the parks.
(c) 2003, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
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