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Florida gambling debate highlights Disney conflict

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Just around the corner from the poker room and within shouting distance of the greyhound track here at the Mardi Gras Casino, the Amazing Spider-Man slot machine beckons gamblers with its spinning masked superhero and his nemesis the Green Goblin.

But in the recently renewed battle over casino gambling in Florida this year, the popular Spider-Man slot machine delivers a different sort of jolt. Spider-Man is one of a stable of Marvel superheroes the Walt Disney Co. acquired for $4 billion in 2009 and continue to appear on slot machines, Internet slot machines and state lottery tickets.

Disney, a powerhouse in Florida because of its financial might and its sway over the tourism industry, has long led the fight against the expansion of casinos in the state, arguing successfully that gambling tarnishes Florida’s family-friendly brand.

This year is no exception. For the second time in two years, state lawmakers are preparing to decide whether Las Vegas-style resort casinos should be allowed to open in Florida, a move Disney hopes to thwart again.

The company is so opposed to gambling that not even Disney cruise ships offer casinos, a mainstay of major cruise liners.

Asked whether Disney’s ties to the gambling industry, through Marvel, undercut its position on casino gambling, a Marvel spokeswoman said last week that the company planned to shed its connection to slot machines when the various licensing agreements expire.

Disney faces a similar issue with its $4 billion acquisition of Lucasfilm last year. “Star Wars” characters, which have been featured in Disney parks for years, are also widely used in slot machines.

In the years since Disney’s acquisition of Marvel, gambling opponents and the company’s critics, including those seeking to open Vegas-style casinos in Florida, have accused Disney of being disingenuous in its campaign against casinos as new slot machines rolled out.

Its competitors argue that Disney fears competition more than gambling.

“Disney’s internecine warfare against integrated resorts in Florida under this pretense demeans them significantly,” said Michael A. Leven, president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., which seeks to open a casino in South Florida.

For John Sowinski, the president of No Casinos, Disney critics are using the slot machine issue simply to distract.

“They want to change the subject,” he said of the large-casino interests. “They don’t want to have a discussion about the merits of the issue. If Disney wanted to be in the gambling business, they would be, on their cruise ships and elsewhere.”

For Disney, the debate over casinos has grown more difficult in the past year as its relationship with Marvel becomes more obvious to theme park visitors and other Disney customers.

“Hypocrisy is in the eye of the beholder,” said Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Law Center and an expert on gambling law. “If they were honest, they would just come out and say, it’s Business 101. We’re trying to protect our turf, and we’ve always attempted to do that.”