US: Disney Shows Two Worlds

Elena and Jaime Boruchovas are residents of Uruguay by way of Lithuania. When it came time to mark a major milestone -- their 30th wedding anniversary -- they did what Americans are supposed to do: They went to Disney World.

On a spring evening in 1993, after a day of enjoying the sights and souvenirs of a truly famous place, the couple stood on the street and watched a parade in the Magic Kingdom.

They watched a float roll down the road carrying Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, their costumes glittering with electric lights. They watched the parading platform hit a curb and careen out of control.

They watched a living, breathing Disney character topple toward them.

``One of the dwarfs, I think it was Dopey,'' said the couple's lawyer, Spencer Aronfeld of Miami. ``It was enshrouded in lights and the lights exploded.''

This unlikely encounter would send the Boruchovas on a strange journey into the other Disney World, the one that can be as hard and cold as the steel and concrete beneath the fanciful facades of the Magic Kingdom.

Tuesday is the 25th anniversary of the world's most famous theme park, an occasion that is not only a celebration of a cultural icon, but the cornerstone of a marketing campaign.

But blow away the pixie dust, and the company that conjures the fantasy is far from typical. Disney World is, in fact, a government entity, a 30,000-acre municipality that can tax and spend and patrol and develop like other communities, but which has been granted key exemptions from oversight that make it far less accountable.

It also has a reputation for toughness, aggressiveness, and litigiousness that is unrivaled in the entertainment industry. And some of its critics say it sometimes goes too far to protect its interests, shunning compromise in favor of confrontation. Disney insists it runs its business and defends its interests in a legal and ethical manner. The company wouldn't comment on some specific legal cases that are most likely to supply ammunition to its critics.

Consider the couple from Uruguay. The exploding dwarf seriously injured Mrs. Boruchovas' left leg. On the third day of her hospitalization, Aronfeld said, a Spanish-speaking Disney representative visited the woman and persuaded her to sign a paper in English, a language the couple didn't understand, in exchange for $1,222.

The woman said she thought it was a receipt for the money. ``The guy who had her sign the release had bought her a little Minnie Mouse doll,'' Aronfeld said.

The paper released Disney from liability, he said. Mrs. Boruchovas' leg became infected. She had to have skin grafts. In 1994, the couple sued.

Aronfeld tried to get office space from other Orlando lawyers, a common practice in the profession, but said they all refused. He said Disney's lawyers "out-of-towned'' him, scheduling hearings first thing in the morning so he would have to fly in the night before, cranking up his costs.

The pre-trial jockeying was intense.

``They're relentless. They hid witnesses. I got contacted by Minnie Mouse, who said she was a witness,'' he said. ``They sent her a letter: Do not contact Spencer Aronfeld. The first thing she did was pick up a phone and call me.''

In May 1995, the jurors awarded the couple $100,000. Disney World spokesman Bill Warren wouldn't comment on Aronfeld's claims. He said there was a post-verdict settlement and confidentiality agreement.

He also wouldn't comment on any specific legal case against Disney, but defended the company's efforts to protect itself from legal action.

``We run our business ethically and legally and that certainly includes our risk management operation, which we feel is one of the best,'' he said.

Because Disney World controls so much of its corporate and municipal universe, it can't help but act in a heavy-handed manner in order to ferociously protect its self-interest, contends Richard Foglesong, a professor of politics at Rollins College in Winter Park and a veteran Disney watcher who is writing a book about the company.

``They have immunity from state and local land use law,'' he said. ``They can build a nuclear plant, distribute alcohol.

``They have powers that local communities don't have. Do they abuse it? In my opinion, yes.''

Dating back to the railroad barons of frontier times, Florida has a history of giving tremendous leeway to big revenue producers. But there is evidence of some nervousness with Disney's relative autonomy.

State Attorney General Bob Butterworth is seeking permission to file a friend-of-the-court brief in a state appellate court case brought against Disney by Robert and Kathlyn Sipkema of Windemere.

The couple wants to use Disney police records as evidence in a wrongful death lawsuit against the company. Their son, Robb, was a passenger in a truck that led a Disney patrol car on a high-speed chase in 1994. The truck hit a tree and the Sipkema teen was killed.

The couple, seeking full access to Disney police records, contends the Disney security staff is subject to the Florida's public-records laws. Disney said it considers its crime unit to be private security guards and its records not bound by such sunshine laws.

The state would like to challenge that stand.

``A public agency cannot avoid the open records law by contracting away its governmental responsibilities,'' said Assistant Attorney General Pat Gleason.

``This principle is particularly relevant in this case because the records at issue are law enforcement records, and as government continues to consider ways to privatize various functions, it's vital that the public's right of access to records be protected.''

The Sipkemas' lawyer, Eric Faddis, said Disney World's security people aren't just cops, they are bad ones.

``I don't think there is any corporation like Disney. There is no other corporation that has ever had the perceived power that Disney has.''

Disney's undercover unit, called Fox, uses security officers dressed as tourists to intercept shoplifters at its many retail emporiums. Typically, Disney will get people to agree to a $200 fine if they admit wrongdoing.

But there are complaints that innocent people are sometimes snared in the intense interdiction effort. People who profess innocence face a tough, costly fight to prove it.

Terri Dorsett, a 17-year-old from Yadkinville, N.C., got a lesson in relentlessness after she visited the park with her high school band last year.

She and a few classmates visited a Disney store and were arrested for shoplifting, taken to the security office, fingerprinted and, her father says, prevented from calling anybody. ``She was hysterical,'' said Thomas Dorsett, a North Carolina businessman. She also was innocent, she said. One of the other girls admitted dropping a $1.98 Mickey Mouse pen into Terri's shopping bag without her knowledge. He said his daughter passed a polygraph test he arranged.

Dorsett said he met with prosecutors and Disney officials who seemed sympathetic. He thought for sure the company would drop her case. But it never did.

``Disney would not back off,'' said the family's lawyer, Harrison Slaughter.

Dorsett spent $15,000 fighting the criminal charge that eventually went to trial. His daughter was acquitted. Dorsett now has filed a federal civil suit against Disney and says he is convinced that Disney maliciously prosecutes innocent people.

``It's scary what can happen to a child,'' Dorsett says. ``The prosecutor's office, they are scared of Disney. Disney rules that area with an iron fist. It's a joke.

``Mickey Mouse is not the guy we thought he was,'' he said. Warren would not comment how Disney's security people nab suspected shoplifters.

``That puts us in the position of educating people we're trying to keep an eye on,'' he said.

Vicki Prusnofsky, a metropolitan New York social worker, made one of her many trips to the park in February 1995 with her daughter and husband, a psychiatrist. They stayed in their time-share Disney World condominium.

While the other two went to ride little race cars, Mrs. Prusnofsky -- accessorized in Mickey and Minnie earrings, Disney hat and sweatshirt --
went to a shop to buy film. She didn't bother to take her receipt, she said.

``I finally went outside and sat on a bench and started loading the camera,'' she said. ``These two obnoxious security women came after me flashing their badges and saying that I stole the film.''

It was roughly 5 p.m. and she was supposed to meet her family at the spinning tea cups in an hour. But the security people would not let her go back into the store so the cashier could vouch for her story, she said.

Instead, she was taken to a security office where personnel demanded receipts for the Disney pins and clothing she'd purchased on previous trips.

``I just started crying,'' she said.

She was turned over to Orange County Sheriff's deputies, handcuffed, booked, fingerprinted, strip-searched and thrown in a cell with ``whores and thieves'' who harassed and even flirted with her for hours, she said.

Meanwhile, she said her frantic family holed up in the Disney town hall information center, but nobody could tell them where she was.

``They thought I was dead,'' she said.

Mrs. Prusnofsky, allowed to get $500 bail from an automatic teller machine, was reunited with her family at 1:45 a.m.

She said she pleaded no contest to the charge because she lacked the money and time to take on Disney and was, in fact, afraid. Now, after the mandatory one-year waiting period, she's applying to have the incident expunged from her record.

She did see a small local newspaper item about the Dorsett case and volunteered to offer a deposition on the teen's behalf. She has no plans to file her own suit.

``The emotional cost is just too great,'' she said.

A brother and sister, Karl and Sue Wiggins, did file a suit against Disney World after they were picked up when a companion of theirs got in a fight at the park in 1986. Karl Wiggins was handcuffed and had his legs tied and his sister said she was knocked out when Disney police shoved her against a wall. They accused Disney World of falsely imprisoning them. An Orange County jury awarded them $1 million.

Legally speaking, Orlando is a town divided. Florida prohibits lawyers from suing people they have represented in the past. Attorneys fall into two opposing Disney camps.

Orlando lawyer Christi Underwood said she believes that Disney farms out as much legal work as it can so it can continually expand its legal army and limit the number of lawyers who can sue it. Warren had no comment.

Unlike other amusement parks which routinely reach small, quiet settlements with people who claim injuries, amusement industry lawyers say Disney is relentless about not making settlements. One notable exception came last December when, just before trial, Disney abruptly paid off six former Disney dancers who had filed a $37.5 million lawsuit.

The women, entertainers in Disney's Kids of the Kingdom show, said employees spied on them through numerous peepholes in their dressing room -- and that one even installed a mirror in Cinderella's Castle to get better angles.

In what they claimed was a sign of corporate callousness, the women said Disney knew that one wardrobe worker was videotaping them for three months before finally snaring the man in a lurid sting operation that went on for more than an hour while the dancers unwittingly disrobed.

Foglesong said the Peeping Tom case is an example of the pitfalls of privatizing a public function like police work. The first instinct of the police is to protect Disney, he said, not the victims.

Disney is exempt from state amusement ride inspections and its records are closed. When accidents do occur, Orlando lawyer John Morgan said Disney security people write slanted reports. ``They get that injury reported in the light most favorable to them. You never have a witness in the interim report that has anything unfavorable to say about Disney,'' said Morgan. Morgan, who figures he filed at least 75 claims against Disney, worked as an entertainer at Disney World for seven years before he became a lawyer. He was there when the gates to the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971.

``I was Pluto,'' he said.

Foglesong said Disney probably is held to a higher standard than other corporations.

``It's more of a story when Disney is being caught bare-knuckled because of their warm and fuzzy image,'' he said.

``But on the other hand, they are determined to protect that image. They are vigilant about it. Mean? Maybe that, too.''

AMP Section Name:Health

    Stay Informed