Disney pitches in for arts center

Walt Disney World will make a "significant" contribution toward building the proposed $389 million Orlando Performing Arts Center, Disney President Meg Crofton told community leaders on Thursday, but she would not reveal the dollar amount.

Jim Pugh, president of the OPAC board, said a Disney deal has been in the works for a couple of months, but he was surprised that Disney was comfortable enough to announce anything.

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"We are delighted," Pugh said of Disney's pledge. "It's a significant day for Central Florida when our entertainment partner steps up to do something significant for the whole county."

Orlando's arts community and downtown players have been trying for more than a decade to rally support and raise money for the center. A deal last fall to set aside tourism tax money appears to have created momentum toward their goal of $100 million in private money. In recent months, the center got pledges of $25 million from Dr. Phillips Charities and $10 million from the Orlando Magic. So far, the board has collected $47.5 million in pledges.

Crofton would only say that the amount of Disney's contribution would be revealed soon. Her staff said it likely would be a matter of weeks. Pugh said it could be a matter of days.

Disney World has long heard grumbling that it has not showered the Central Florida community with the levels of civic leadership and arts, social and economic philanthropy that the company's California-based headquarters has provided Los Angeles. Former Orlando Mayor Bill Frederick, for example, made such complaints as he told the Sentinel in 2002 that he had to threaten Disney's public image to get the company to donate $300,000 toward a downtown bandshell in 1989.

But Disney officials have always insisted such charges aren't fair — that Disney World sometimes doesn't get enough credit for the millions of dollars of money and services donated every year or its executives' behind-the-scenes influences, and that Disney has a much bigger corporate presence in California.

Lately Disney World has shown signs of becoming more assertive about hyping local contributions, including the $22 million in cash and in-kind donations that the company recently tallied and publicized for last year. On Thursday, Disney World launched a new Web site, wdwpublicaffairs.com, to help promote community connections.

Perception appears to be changing. On Thursday, both Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty praised recent civic efforts by Crofton's predecessor Al Weiss, and expressed encouragement for Crofton's start, particularly with her performing-arts-center pledge.

"That, along with the philanthropic activities, makes a pretty strong statement for their commitment to the whole community, not just for things that appear to benefit them," Crotty said.

Crofton said she spent her first five months getting adjusted, but is ready to personally step up as a civic leader, starting by taking a board seat on the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission. Weiss also was on that board, and chaired it in 2004-05.

In addressing Orlando's powerful, Crofton hailed more recent efforts by Weiss, now worldwide president of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, crediting him with helping lead civic efforts to lure the Burnham Institute labs to Orlando and to persuade the state to approve a University of Central Florida medical school.

She called attention to community roles of key Disney executives and the 200,000 volunteer hours that Disney employees logged last year, noted the thousands of children with life-threatening diseases who receive Disney visits, and announced a new "Disney Wish Lounge" opened for them Thursday at Magic Kingdom.

She also highlighted Disney World's year, casting developments in community terms for the community leaders. In noting the strong growth of the Disney Vacation Club and the groundbreaking of its latest resort, Disney's Animal Kingdom Villas, Crofton pointed out that time-share investments commit tourists to return more frequently to Central Florida.

Crofton announced that Disney and Jostens, the scholastic merchandise company, will build a 70,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art indoor-sports field house at Disney's Wide World of Sports. "We're thrilled with this announcement," she said, "because it will continue to drive visitation to our region."

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