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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Disney World Goes Green

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Pippin Ross examines some innovative moves in reducing, recycling and re-use at Disney World. Disney says it hopes to become a role model in sustainable living. But, some area residents say the giant resort's uncontrolled development is setting a bad example for the rest of Florida.


KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Each year about 20 million people visit Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. They take home a slew of memories and they leave behind a million tons of trash, three billion gallons of wastewater, and otherwise, put a massive strain on the area's environment. To manage all the debris, Disney World recently began to recycle and compost much of its waste. It's also putting many of its fast land holdings into preserve. But some of Disney's neighbors aren't impressed. They hold the resort responsible for devastating acres of wetlands and introducing sprawl to what was once the headwaters of the Everglades. Pippin Ross reports.

ALBERT: (Laughs) Good afternoon. (Laughs) A pleasant day to you.

ROSS: Dressed in his impeccable blue and white admiral's uniform, Albert the Doorman at the Beach and Yacht Hotel embodies Disney's panache.

ALBERT: (Laughs) I like your smile. I like your smile. (Laughs)

ROSS: A flawless attention to detail, where music pipes from invisible speakers inside flower beds. Everything is spotlessly clean, freshly painted, and every setting designed to take the visitor from day to day reality into a fantasy world. Since opening in 1971, 600 million people have made the trip. And, like Ed Pyle of Wisconsin, are downright evangelical in their affection for the massive resort.

(Music in background)

PYLE: Hey, it's the perfect escape from reality. I mean, it's so clean. It's so fun. It's so beautiful. I mean (laughs), just listen to Mickey sing.

(Mickey sings)

ROSS: Walt Disney began building his perfect world in the mid-60s by secretly buying up 37,000 acres of central Florida swamp and cedar forest. Engineers dredged, drained, and back-filled the land. Two artificial lakes were built to supply water to four theme parks, three water parks, six golf courses, 17 hotels, and 48 swimming pools. But so many people come to Disney World, they easily soak up the water and generate tons of trash.

(Mickey Mouse music, fading to engines up and under)

ROSS: Under pressure to stop overwhelming Orlando's landfills, Disney built its own recycling facility and wastewater treatment plant eight years ago. Standing amid ceiling-high mountains of debris, recycling center manager Jerry Vollenwider says the company currently recycles about one third of its waste.

VOLLENWIDER: Well, we recycle steel and aluminum, cardboard, newspaper, plastic, and glass. Most of that is our baled cardboard. We average about 32 tons of that by itself a day.


ROSS: Just down the road from the recycling plant is 15 acres of silty brown compost, the nutrient-rich leftovers of thousands of resort meals, sewer sludge, and the clippings and cuttings from the resort's spectacular gardens and lawns. The compost pile, the waste and water treatment plants, all of the messy stuff, is called "backstage" and strictly off-limits to visitors.

(Ambient voices; a child cries)

ROSS: On stage, visitors are shown how Disney is good to the environment.

DR. BUG: All right, I'm Dr. Al Bug. How are you all doing this morning?

CROWD: Good.

DR. BUG: Good. I work with Disney's pest management. I've been working here for three years. We do a lot of work with beneficial insects. Who has held a ladybug before?

ROSS: Dressed in a lab coat, Dr. Bug, in real life a pest control technician, explains the concept of integrated pest management to a group of children.

DR. BUG: The pests they eat are aphids, mealybugs, scale, they'll take care of those bugs on your plants so you don't have to spray a lot of harsh pesticides. And then it's better for the environment that way. So, we do a lot of that at Disney World. We do a lot of beneficial insect release...

ROSS: Integrated pest management and the use of botanic sprays have reduced Disney World's pesticide use by 70 percent, although considerable quantities continue to be used at the resort's golf courses. The bugs, recycling and composting, and donating surplus supplies to the local community are all part of what Disney calls "environmentality." The goal, says horticulture director Katie Moss-Warner, is to be eco-friendly and profitable.

MOSS-WARNER: In each one of them we look at, from a business perspective, is there a way to be both a good business and push forward setting a model for the world?

ROSS: Other Orlando resorts have taken Disney's lead and begun their own recycling programs. But Al Malatesta, the conservation specialist with the local Audubon Society, says before Disney became a role model, it set a bad example.

MALATESTA: There's a lot of filled wetlands here. There's a lot of ecosystems that have just been devastated as a result of all the sprawl around here.

ROSS: Malatesta sits in his car at one of hundreds of strip malls that crowd Orlando and feed off of Disney's success. In his lap, he holds an old scrapbook from the local Audubon Society.

MALATESTA: Here's an article from January of 1966: "Audubon Society Will Attend Reedy Creek Hearing."

ROSS: The Reedy Creek hearing was part of a local effort to figure out who was buying up such a massive chunk of central Florida. The mystery buyer turned out to be the Walt Disney Company. That surprised the local community, but they were stunned after discovering that Disney had convinced the Florida legislature to give it complete control over its land. Malatesta says no other corporation in the nation has ever been granted such autonomy.

MALATESTA: Disney started the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which is essentially their own water management district. And Florida water management districts have a lot of power. By having your own water management district, you permit your own developments. So it's always worked out pretty well for them, I think, to do that.

ROSS: Disney's elaborate digging and filling set the standard for development throughout central Florida that is now exacting a price. Back-filling low-lying wetlands destroyed nature's own system of storing and recycling water, and central Florida now faces critical water shortages. Local environmentalists, such as the Sierra Club's Sue Eberle, says if Disney wants to sustain its success, it's going to have to do more than recycle.

EBERLE: Because our air quality is going down the tubes. Our waters are being degraded. And our land, of course, is quickly and rapidly going away. So I think it's too bad. We've got some very good minds and lots and lots of money that needs to be used in the right direction. Hopefully, Disney can be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

ROSS: But the goodwill Disney had generated with environmentalists fizzled about two years ago when the company dug, drained, and paved natural habitat to build yet another theme park.

WOMAN: The Savannah in front of us is part of the Serengeti grassland system...

ROSS: Covering 500 acres of pasture land, Animal Kingdom recreates an African rainforest and Savannah. The big draw at Animal Kingdom is the Kilimanjaro safari ride.

WOMAN: You see lots of trees that have been pulled out. Well, the elephants are the bulldozers of the Savannah...

ROSS: Disney admits it displaced more than 100 native species and imported 200 other plants and animals to the land. Wrapping this Disney-style zoo in the theme of conservation seemed to many Floridians, such as Cecelia Height of the Sierra Club, the ultimate hypocrisy.

HEIGHT: I would like to see a real initiative to preserving the real Florida and not paving it over with concrete and saying, well, we're going to be parking at Gopher Tortoise Ten, and knowing that there's a distinct possibility that you may be actually at a tomb of gopher tortoises.

ROSS: The gopher tortoise is one of Florida's most endangered species. Disney's Moss-Warner is appalled at the suggestion the company is destroying local habitat.

MOSS-WARNER: When people come to Walt Disney World, they see the development because we channel them into that corridor. But surrounding this development base is an unbelievable amount of conservation. Again, at full build-out, 50 percent of our land will be natural native lands.

ROSS: In addition, Disney recently committed millions of dollars to preserve an 8,500-acre ranch located on its periphery. Disney watchers, such as the Audubon's Malatesta, say Disney knows it's good for business to be perceived as environmentally correct.

MALATESTA: Disney is very successful at making money, and they have also been successful at finding ways to make money lately that are environmentally sensitive. I would hate to see it come down to a contest between dollars and the environment, because I think the environment would surely lose.

(A golf ball is hit)

MAN: Good ball. Very nice.

ROSS: Despite the company's promise to keep a quarter of its land in preserve, environmentalists are wary. Six years ago, an area that Disney called a wildlife sanctuary was turned into two golf courses. In homage to the birds who live there -- and Disney is trying to lure back -- the courses are named Osprey Ridge and Eagle Pines.

(Another golf ball is hit)

ROSS: For Living on Earth, I'm Pippin Ross.

(Another golf ball is hit)

MAN: That's red stakes. I played up there...



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