By DONNA BALANCIA, Gannett News Service
CENTRAL FLORIDA — A change in top management could be just the thing to bring some of the magic — and the local people — back to Walt Disney World Resort, some Brevard County residents say.
Michael Eisner, The Walt Disney Co.’s beleaguered chairman and chief executive officer, will face his opponents today in Philadelphia at the company’s highly anticipated annual shareholders’ meeting. But, closer to home, regular visitors to the Orlando-area theme parks say changes should be made.
“I think Eisner should go,” said Jose Parra of Suntree. “I have a 7-year-old and a 20-year-old, and we always used to go to the parks. But there’s no more family values with that company since Eisner came in.”
The 61-year-old Eisner is trying to stave off efforts of dissident shareholders, including Walt Disney’s nephew. A number of pension funds and other major shareholders — holding 30 percent or more of Disney stock — are expected to withhold their support from Eisner, in effect giving him a vote of no confidence.
“Somebody has something he wants to say, and we’ll see what that will be at the meeting,” said Herschel Sterling of Melbourne. “We shall see what all the folderol is about.”
A campaign to bring down Eisner and some key directors could succeed, but it doesn’t mean Eisner would be out today, since there are no opposing candidates on the ballot.
Dissident shareholders Stanley Gold and Roy Disney, the nephew of company co-founder Walt Disney, have succeeded in their effort to garner enough no votes from other shareholders to at least send the message that Eisner must go.
Among the factors opponents cite are their beliefs that the company is not performing financially up to standard, and that Eisner should not hold the title of both chairman and chief executive.
At a news conference in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Roy Disney and Gold once again expressed they would be happy if 15 percent to 20 percent of shareholders withheld support for Eisner.
“I’ve worked for this company all my life, and I’ve watched it go down over the last 10 years,” Roy Disney said.
“We’re not going away until Mr. Eisner’s gone.” Gold said. “We’ll be here next week, next month, next year.”
The growing opposition to Eisner comes on the heels of Comcast Corp.’s $54 billion acquisition bid for Disney last month. Disney’s board rejected the offer as inadequate.
The outcome of the meeting is of great interest to the people of the Central Florida region, 55,000 of whom are employed at Walt Disney World Resort and another 3,000 who are employed by Disney Cruise Line, which has two ships that sail from Port Canaveral.
On Monday, the State Board of Administration of Florida said it would vote its 7.3 million shares against re-election of Eisner. Florida’s is the fourth-largest pension fund in the nation. Its Disney stock holdings represent more than 0.3 percent of Disney’s 2.05 billion shares outstanding.
Generally at shareholders meetings, executives present how the company has been performing. Shareholders vote on proxy matters and ask questions from the floor. Shareholders vote on whether to re-elect board members in place and, ideally, results come at the end of the meeting. Eisner’s contract runs through 2006.
But while Philadelphia — and Disney headquarters in Burbank, Calif. — may be far away, Brevard County residents said the company Eisner still runs is under the gun to clean up its act.
“Well, I think Disney World is just not as clean as it used to be,” said Nancy Myron of Melbourne. “Even my kids, who are grown up, say the same thing when they go there. The last straw for us was when we went to eat at one of the kiosks, and my husband asked for a cookie. The girl stood up on the counter to reach for them, and then didn’t even wash the countertop and set the cookies down right where she was standing. It was disgusting.”
To his credit, however, Eisner has brought success to the company in the form of films such as “The Lion King,” and has continued to promote the television assets, such as The Disney Channel. He has applied marketing savvy to reviving characters such as Snow White and the princesses that grace everything from kids’ sneakers to toy products.
“I think they should keep him,” said Eleanor Gold of Viera. “He’s done a lot for the company — and that’s a tough job. It’s easy to take shots at people.”
To listen in
The Walt Disney Co.’s annual shareholders’ meeting starts at 10 a.m. today. A live Web cast of the meeting will be available at Disney’s investor-relations Web site at http://www.disney.com/investors