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World's conflicts showing up at Disney's gates

Felix and Shelia Isaac were warned by a friend that they would face long lines at Walt Disney World this month.

But the longest wait the Dallas couple had 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.

"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, 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 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, a theme park consultant in Orlando. "The problem with this is there are so many uncontrollables. . . . It's difficult to make plans or projections since everything is in limbo."

Disney chairman Michael Eisner acknowledged this month that the terrorism alert upgrade had hurt the company's four Florida parks more than its two California parks because the Florida operation is more dependent on visitors arriving by plane.

"When the orange alert hit we saw an immediate reaction," Eisner told CNBC television.

Walt Disney World spokeswoman Rena Callahan said she couldn't comment on attendance figures. But in the year after 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 because Walt Disney World accounts for 60 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 because 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 Sunday, usually the busiest day of the week. There were no waits for any rides.

"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.

"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 or out of control 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 theme park attendance figures. But Merrill Lynch analysts 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 the 2003 fiscal year operating income estimate for Disney's theme parks by $205-million to $1.1-billion, down 6 percent from the same period last year.

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, said Merrill Lynch analysts.

The other major theme park operators in Orlando _ Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando _ haven't cut workers' hours, but they attract a larger percentage of local visitors than Disney and have smaller work forces.

Universal spokesman Jim Canfield said the company's two Florida parks plan to hire part-time workers for spring break but would consider cutting back the parks' hours 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.

"I think 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.