Great Story from the Miami newspaper - note that Universal may cut park hours as well. Short lines at Disney mean lower attendance Park faces further crowd dips BY MIKE SCHNEIDER Associated Press ORLANDO - Felix and Shelia Isaac were warned by a friend that they would face long lines when they visited Walt Disney World this month. But the longest wait the couple from Dallas have had at the resort was 15 minutes at The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride, one of the most popular rides at the Disney-MGM park. The ride can have waits of more than an hour on busy days for guests who don't use the fastpass system of advance booking. ''Someone told me before I got here that I would be waiting in lines,'' Felix Isaac said. ``I sure haven't done that.'' Never fully recovered from the attendance dip that followed the Sept. 11-induced tourism slowdown 1 ½ years ago, Disney's Florida parks now face even smaller crowds with the prospect of war with Iraq so close. That comes on top of an attendance dip in February blamed on the federal government's decision to raise the terrorist threat to code orange -- which caused wary travelers to stay closer to home -- and snowstorms that shut down airports in the Northeast. There's no light at the end of the tunnel, industry watchers say. ''Any other recession or gas problem didn't last this long,'' said Steve Baker, an Orlando-based theme park consultant. ``The problem with this is there are so many uncontrollables . . . It's difficult to make plans or projections since everything is in limbo.'' ORANGE ALERT Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, in a television interview earlier this month, acknowledged the upgrade in the terrorism alert to the second-highest level had hurt the company's four Florida parks more so than its two California parks since the Florida operation is more dependent on visitors arriving by plane. ''When the orange alert hit we saw an immediate reaction,'' Eisner told CNBC. Walt Disney World spokeswoman Rena Callahan said she couldn't comment on attendance figures. But in the year following the Sept. 11 attacks, international visitors to Walt Disney World declined by more than 20 percent. The four parks saw attendance drop to 37.5 million last year from 39.7 million in 2001, according to Amusement Business, a trade magazine. Slowdowns at Disney's Florida parks reverberate throughout the company since Walt Disney World accounts for 60 percent to 75 percent of Disney's overall theme park operating income. Disney's Florida parks, where about two-thirds of visitors come from out of town, imposed a hiring freeze and cut back workers' hours last month. Disney's California parks, Disneyland and California Adventure, have fared better since about two-thirds of their attendance comes from local visitors. The attendance drop at Walt Disney World has been most noticeable at Epcot, a theme park devoted to technology and world cultures. Four of the eight general admission turnstiles were shuttered last Sunday, usually the busiest day of the week. There were no waits for any rides. Many of the theme park's plazas were empty of visitors. Only a quarter of the Les Chefs de France restaurant in the France section was occupied during lunchtime. ''It's just kind of dead,'' said Ginger Bullard, of Cookeville, Tenn., who sat with her husband, Victor, near the entrance to the Innoventions attraction at Epcot. Mary Poppins, normally swamped by autograph-seeking children, waited on a solitary corner of the United Kingdom section of Epcot, a wide ruby-lipstick smile on her face and a white parasol in her hand. The worker playing the Disney character waited some more, but no children with autograph books or cameras walked past her. When a group of adults finally passed, she shouted a ''Hello'' to get their attention. ''Anytime there is a slowdown, Epcot takes the biggest hit. It's not the favorite attraction,'' said Donna-Lynne Dalton, recording secretary for Teamsters Local 385, which represents costumed workers and bus drivers. Disney's other theme parks, Magic Kingdom, Disney-MGM and Animal Kingdom, were much more crowded but still below what is considered normal for March, one of the busier times of the year because of spring break. There was a 15-minute wait to buy tickets at the Magic Kingdom but popular rides like ''It's a Small World'' had no lines. ''It hasn't been as mobbed like it usually is this time of year,'' said Claudette Downs, of New Jersey, who visits Walt Disney World every March with her two sons. Disney doesn't release attendance figures for its theme parks. But analysts at Merrill Lynch this month lowered their second-quarter theme park operating income estimate by $90 million to $200 million, a 29 percent decline from the $280 million during the same period last year. The analysts cited the prospect of war and the orange alerts as the reason. The company's second quarter ends March 31. The analysts also lowered their 2003 fiscal year operating income estimate for Disney's theme parks by $205 million to $1.1 billion, a 6 percent decline from the same period last year. VISITORS FROM ABROAD The terror threats and possibility of war have had the greatest effect on keeping away international visitors, who generate more than a third of the operating income of Walt Disney World in Florida, according to the Merrill Lynch analysts. The other major theme park operators in Orlando, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando, haven't had to cut back workers' hours, but they attract a larger percentage of local visitors than Disney and have smaller workforces. Universal spokesman Jim Canfield said the company's two Florida parks plan to hire part-time workers for the spring break season but would consider cutting back the parks' hours of operation and the hours of part-time workers if war cuts into attendance. SeaWorld Orlando general manager Jim Atchison said local visitors have compensated for the downturn in out-of-town visitors who stayed away because of the threats of war and terrorism. ''What we're seeing is a kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop as opposed to any real impact at this point,'' he said. Some Walt Disney World visitors, such as Cathy Tolles, and her granddaughters, Alyssa and Shayla, enjoyed the smaller crowds. ''I thought it would be busier,'' said Tolles, of Muskoka, Canada.