Business

Casino operators take on Disney in push to expand

While observers say Disney could lose business if Las Vegas-style resort casinos open in South Florida, Disney contends  “mega-casinos” would hurt the state’s “tourism brand.”
Matt Stroshane/Disney Parks via Getty Images
While observers say Disney could lose business if Las Vegas-style resort casinos open in South Florida, Disney contends “mega-casinos” would hurt the state’s “tourism brand.”

TALLAHASSEE — To bring Las Vegas-style gambling to Florida, casino operators like Sheldon Adelson are sending more than 100 lobbyists to the Capitol to battle their biggest adversary: Mickey Mouse.

The clash pits casino operators Genting and Las Vegas Sands, controlled by Adelson, against Walt Disney Co., which runs theme parks and resorts near Orlando, and may face new competition for convention business. Companies on both sides of the dispute are sending lobbyists and campaign checks to Florida lawmakers, who say they will consider expanding gambling this year.

A state-commissioned study found that full-service casinos and their associated hotels could generate $1.5 billion in spending annually in Florida, making the state an attractive target for the gambling industry as it pushes to expand. The outcome is critical for Disney, as the world’s largest entertainment company seeks to protect its Walt Disney World Resort, which includes five convention facilities.

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‘‘Gambling interests in Las Vegas and Atlantic City are looking for new territory, and opening Florida to them would be tremendous,’’ said Robert Jarvis, who teaches gambling law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. ‘‘The fear for Disney is that instead of people going to Disney and dropping their disposable income there, they’ll go to the destination casinos and drop their money there.’’

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Florida law limits gambling to eight Indian casinos, which offer Las Vegas-style gambling, along with 31 parimutuel facilities. Casino operators want lawmakers to authorize as many as three resorts in South Florida that would offer the same range of games as in Las Vegas.

Casino resorts would compete with Disney for tourists and conventions, said Jarvis.

Disney has 700,000 square feet of meeting space in its Florida resorts, according to the company’s website. Genting said in 2012 it wanted to build the world’s largest casino in Miami with 750,000 square feet of meeting space.

Genting’s allies include Associated Industries of Florida, a business trade group that on Jan. 15 unveiled a new website and marketing campaign touting casino resorts as a ‘‘huge magnet for convention and trades shows.’’ Lobbyists for casino operators say an expansion will bring jobs and tourists and boost the economy.

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Disney argues gambling would hurt the state.

‘‘The massive expansion of gambling that would come from legalizing mega-casinos would be a bad bet for Florida’s taxpayers, tourism brand and existing businesses,’’ said Andrea Finger, a Disney spokeswoman.

The Florida debate is filling the campaign purses of lawmakers and Republican Governor Rick Scott, who hasn’t said whether he favors allowing new casinos. Gambling interests have donated more than $3.4 million to Florida lawmakers since 2012, while Disney has contributed $1.7 million. Both sides are on pace to almost double their spending from the previous election cycle.