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Tue, May 13, 2003

What Kind Of Mickey Mouse Procedure Is This?

How Disney Got Two No-Fly Zones Without Public Debate

So that's how it happened. Pilots certainly didn't want them. The Department of Homeland Security didn't ask for them. Neither did the TSA. In fact, Congress had to bend its own rules to accommodate the request. All because a high-powered lobbyist for the Disney organization asked lawmakers to establish no-fly zones over its theme parks in Florida and California. That means no aerial tours of the Magic Kingdom and no banner-tows above the park.

Was It Safety Concerns... Or Something Else?

"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, in an interview with The Orlando Sentinel. "They've achieved it now under the guise of national security, and there is absolutely no reason for it."

Disney executives say they did absolutely nothing wrong in going straight to Capitol Hill and getting lawmakers to order the FAA to set up the air exclusion zones. They may have pitched it to Congress as a security-only issue, but one Disney spokeswoman admitted terror fears weren't necessarily at the top of Disney's reasons for going to Washington.

"The sole and exclusive motivation for seeking these restrictions is for the safety and enjoyment of our guests," Disney spokeswoman Leslie Goodman told The Sentinel, saying "enjoyment" meant everything from keeping out "banner ads from trial lawyers" to pilots "buzzing the parks."

"Disney park officials have wanted to eliminate air traffic over the parks long before 9-11," AOPA President Phil Boyer was quoted as saying to The Sentinel. His group wants the FAA to eliminate Disney's no-fly zones. "Did they employ lobbyists to convince FAA to finally 'ban' general aviation in the guise of security?"

What Is Disney Afraid Of?

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank in Alexandria (VA), was quoted in The Sentinel as saying, "Apart from warning away law-abiding pilots, it's not clear to me what this is going to buy you." Indeed, he says, the 3-mile, 3000 foot exclusion zones provide little protection and are just too hard to enforce - especially given the fact that both Disney parks are close to busy airports.

"It's not clear to me what difference this would make unless they're going to put some antiaircraft missiles in front of (Cinderella) Castle or something to enforce it."

(Can you picture some PR type at Disney thinking right now, "missiles... yeah, that'll attract an even bigger crowd...")

So How Did This Happen?

The Sentinel reports the air-exclusion zones were instituted based on a mere 65 words - most of them beyond the average lawmaker's ability to recognize technical jargon - in a 3000 page, $397.4 million spending bill. Not once, reports the newspaper, was the word "Disney" printed in the bill. When Senate negotiators to meet privately for talks aimed at reconciling their differences over the spending bill, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) were reportedly the driving forces behind the no-fly zones.

"Mr. Shelby and Mr. Stevens had some particular interest in adding Disney," said a House source familiar with the meetings, in an interview with the newspaper. The Sentinel quotes another Capitol Hill source as saying Shelby and Stevens were heavily influenced by a former employee of that Alaska Senator - Mitch Rose - who's worked as a Disney lobbyist since 2000.

So why not make the permanent bans effective over other major entertainment venues, such as Six Flags amusement parks or NASCAR motor speedways? Sen. Shelby specifically rejected the idea.

"Along with the protections for certain sporting events (some professional baseball and football games), 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, obtained by The Orlando Sentinel.

Who's Next?

Remember Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, the man who bulldozed Meigs Field in the middle of the night? He's reportedly red-in-the-face angry that Disney was granted the no-fly zones and Chicago wasn't.

"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. Eventually, Illinois lawmakers were able to get a no-fly zone instituted over Chicago. The FAA, however, took it down when the national terror threat assessment was most recently lowered.

FMI: www.stevens.senate.gov, www.shelby.senate.gov, www.disney.go.com, www.aopa.org

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