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Magic Lobbyists

Sheldon Adelson Battles Mickey Mouse

Magic Lobbyists

I just got back from the Tropicana in Atlantic City, where it was “Bacon Week.”

Yes, that’s right. Bacon was everywhere. Bacon milkshakes. Chocolate-covered bacon. Bacon-flavored lip balm, bacon bourbon and bacon ice cream sundaes. It was a lovely festival of swine. Thank God they had paramedics on hand, so I live to eat another day.

But another big story this month is shaping up in Florida. It’s a true Battle of the Titans:

In this corner, billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.

And in this corner… Mickey Mouse.

OK, the master of integrated resorts and the world’s most famous rodent are not actually facing each other in a cage match or anything. (Although, I think Sheldon could take him. Or at least wrestle him to the ground. He’s only a cartoon, after all.) The epic battle is taking place in the Florida legislature, where lobbyists, not only for Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands but for international casino giant Genting Bhd., are being sent to promote the legalization of mega-resorts in the Sunshine State.

Their arguments will, of course, be countered by lobbyists from the Walt Disney Company. The Magic Kingdom doesn’t want huge casinos in its state, which would counter what it sees as the Disney-esque culture that should pervade Florida: A fun, wholesome, family-friendly wonderland, with firearms.

Apparently, no one has told Mickey or his lobbyists—which, I’m told, include Goofy, Minnie, Snow White and all seven dwarves (Grumpy is a particularly effective advocate)—that there are actually casinos in Florida already. Big casinos, like the Seminole Hard Rock properties. One of those is not much more than an hour’s drive from Walt Disney World.

There are casinos at horse racing tracks, jai alai frontons and the most family-friendly parimutuel venues, dog tracks. (Goofy actually races at those venues.) There are casino cruises leaving from ports on the state’s east and west coasts.

But Disney officials still insist that huge, luxurious integrated resorts would harm Florida’s “tourism brand.” Never mind that the six o’clock news does more to hurt that brand than a casino ever could.

This is just the latest salvo in a long battle between Disney and casino corporations over mega-resorts. I remember writing a story in 1986—when I was a fresh, young mustachioed gaming writer—about possible resort casinos in South Florida that were ultimately prevented by Mickey Mouse. More recently, opposition from Disney killed a 2011 plan by Genting to build a $3.8 billion resort. Genting had spent nearly half a billion on real estate for what was to be a Resorts World Miami project. Mickey would have nothing of it, sending lobbyists to Tallahassee, making big campaign contributions, and even giving Florida politicians more than $400,000 in free theme park tickets.

Yes, Disney can comp too.

Disney sent 34 lobbyists to Tallahassee last year to fight integrated gaming resorts, to go along with 23 sent by the anti-gaming group No Casinos. Genting and Las Vegas Sands plan to send more than 100 lobbyists to the legislature this year to promote mega-resorts. They will arrive armed with a recent state-commissioned study that shows integrated resorts could generate $1.5 billion in new annual spending in Florida every year.

It may not be enough. The assembly is replete with anti-gaming lawmakers who just went to Disney World, and they are joined by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which is also against gambling interests and which also has increased political contributions.

Last month, Florida Chamber Vice President David Hart told Bloomberg that the goal of the anti-casino side is “to protect Florida’s family-friendly image.” In the same article, Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger went so far as to say the company’s opposition has nothing to do with any potential threat to Disney’s convention bookings, or to fears that visitors to mega-resorts may detract from the stream of tourists to the Magic Kingdom.

Yes, I’m sure I believe that. Money couldn’t have anything to do with it, right? And Walt Disney never smoked a Lucky.

No, casinos pose a threat to the air of morality that Florida strives to present to its thousands of tourists. After all, if mega-resorts came, media stories about thousands of jobs, compelling new attractions and a new stream of visitors might crowd out stories about street crime, meth labs and old guys gunning down teenagers.

In any event, it should be an interesting battle: Sheldon Adelson and Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay on one side; Disney’s Bob Iger on the other—along with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Tinker Bell and a whole lot of lawyers.

All together now: “When you wish upon a lobbyist…”

Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.