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Parks are wild over new Disney kingdom

Now that Disney plans to feature animals in a new theme park, are Nature Coast attractions that spotlight the wild kingdom fearing a bite in the profits?

Officials at local parks said Wednesday that they don't expect visitors to pass on trips to the West Coast attractions simply because Disney will offer similar fare.

Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, Silver Springs near Ocala and Weeki Wachee Spring representatives welcome the Walt Disney Co.'s newest effort _ and the additional tourists the park will attract to Central Florida.

Indeed, many say Disney's new park should benefit not just local attractions but also the "ecotourism" business, such as boating, diving and swimming with the manatees.

Disney officials Tuesday unveiled plans for their fourth theme park, Wild Animal Kingdom, which is scheduled to open in 1998.

The park will feature 150 species of live animals, as well as rides and attractions focusing on extinct animals, such as dinosaurs, and mythological ones, such as dragons.

The move is viewed as a potential threat to Busch Gardens in Tampa, which features zoological exhibits. Tom Linley, manager at Homosassa Springs, sees things in a different way.

His park, on the coast of Citrus County, offers close access to animals such as a hippopotamus, alligators, manatees, birds and many other animals. It is a small attraction, one that offers a slice of natural Florida.

Linley said some people come to Florida only to see Disney's empire while for others, Disney is just one stop in the Sunshine State.

Steve Specht is director of public relations for Silver Springs and its sister park, Weeki Wachee Spring in Hernando County. He said Disney's move could increase the number of visitors to Florida, and that could only help his attractions.

"Disney doesn't do anything halfway. They obviously have done the research. They know what visitors to the state would want and are looking for. We expect it to be a big boost to tourism in the state of Florida. Any other attraction in the state, we feel, will benefit," Specht said.

Silver Springs is known for its glass-bottomed boat rides down the Silver River as well as its jungle cruises and safari rides. Visitors can see such animals as zebras, giraffes, alligators, crocodiles, monkeys, llamas and ostriches.

Weeki Wachee offers a bird show with falcons and hawks, an exotic bird show, a wilderness river cruise and a petting zoo.

Specht noted that both parks offer entertainment that helps keep them commercially viable in the competitive race for tourist dollars.

Weeki Wachee has its signature mermaid shows; Silver Springs offers concerts, exhibits and special features such as a Tarzan show now running.

"We really don't feel we're going head to head with Disney in that respect. It's really a different experience," Specht said.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report

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