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More shockwaves for the Mouse



With tourists now afraid to fly, last weekend's small bump up in attendance gave Disney World managers reason to be hopeful. Then came Monday, and the long-running slump returned.

But there's a new perspective on the financial crisis that has cut theme-park hours short and sent some workers home until further notice. After the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Mouse House management has something more grim to think about.

Think back to December 1999. Amid all those Y2K end-of-the-world stories, do you recall hearing anything about U.S. Custom agents intercepting one of Osama bin Laden's operatives as he tried to cross the Canadian border a week or so before Christmas?

Well, it happened. Ahmed Ressam, a 32-year-old Algerian, was stopped for routine questioning on Dec. 14, 1999, as he attempted to enter the U.S. at Port Angeles, Wash. According to media accounts, when agents noticed that Ressam was sweating heavily and seemed visibly nervous, they decided to search his car.

What they found sent shockwaves through America's intelligence community as well as Disney Co. headquarters. For hidden inside Ressam's car were more than 1,000 pounds of explosives, four timers and a series of maps.

An investigation suggested that Ressam was acting as an agent for bin Laden, deemed by the White House as Public Enemy No. 1. He reportedly had been directed to wreak havoc in the United States during the 1999 holiday season. Working with a terrorist cell out of Montreal, Ressam was supposed to have planted a series of bombs in West Coast cities between Christmas Day and New Year's Eve. Sources said the maps identified targets, allegedly including Seattle's Space Needle, the Los Angeles airport -- and Disneyland.

The threat was taken so seriously that Seattle Mayor Paul Schell canceled that city's millennium celebration, which had been expected to draw 50,000 people to the base of the 52-story-high Space Needle. He was immediately criticized for being a spoilsport and giving in to paranoia. Given the more recent attacks, however, perhaps his decision was right.

Mind you, Disney execs allegedly received identical warnings about potential New Year's Eve terrorist activities. But they went ahead with their events without incident.

In truth, there just wasn't a practical plan in place to shut down the Disney-land Resort in an emergency. All of its 1,638 hotel rooms had been booked way in advance. Tens of thousands of people were planning to fly in to Anaheim for the once-in-a-lifetime party, with even greater numbers bound for Orlando. How could the Mouse tell them all to stay home?

In both places Disney beefed up security. Yet the company knew when it was over that it had dodged a bullet. Which is why the company soon took measures such as encircling the perimeter of Disney World's Magic Kingdom with a 10-foot-high chain-link fence topped with razor wire. A spokesman insisted it wasn't because of any one incident; rather, she said, the fence was added to make the park safer and easier to patrol.

In the wake of that threat, the company also revamped its theme-park evacuation plans, which were so effectively carried out in Orlando on the morning of Sept. 11. (Because of the three-hour time difference, the number of people who had to be ushered from Disneyland was small.)

Why the rush to clear folks out? Disney had been informed by intelligence officials during their bin Laden briefing that his operatives were told to target American icons. In the case of New York, that meant the twin towers. In Washing-ton, it was the Pentagon. In Disneyland or Disney World, it could well mean Cinderella's Castle.

Though the December 1999 terrorist attempt was foiled and the Sept. 11 attacks struck elsewhere, Disney officials remain rattled. They know now that bin Laden likes to finish what he starts.

Think about it. In February 1993, bin Laden-backed terrorists tried to bring down the World Trade Center with a car bomb in a subterranean parking garage. That poorly planned attack resulted in six deaths, hundreds treated for injuries and $250 million in property damage. The return visit yielded thousands dead and property damage in the billions. It took eight more years, but apparently bin Laden finally got what he wanted.

That's why Mickey's security measures -- like the front-entrance bag searches and the behind-the-scenes cast member I.D. checks -- could remain in place for quite some time. Disney officials don't really care if Disneyland is The Happiest Place on Earth. For now, they're just trying to keep it safe.

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