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Disney takes aim at housing market

Mouse House plans to expand homebuilding biz

The Walt Disney Co. has a new dream to sell: a rebounding housing market.

Although home sales in Florida are in the doldrums, the Mouse House plans to expand its home-building biz and hopes to construct more than 450 luxury vacation homes — ranging in price from $1.5 million to $8 million — in a new development at its Walt Disney World in Orlando.

A new 445-room Four Seasons Hotel, complete with a spa and golf course, is also part of the proposal for the 980-acre neighborhood, half of which will be designated a “conservation area.”

Disney is quick to stress that Golden Oak, as the gated community will be dubbed, is not designed as a sequel to Celebration, the development it built in 1996 just south of Orlando. As of 2004, there were 9,500 people in 3,745 residences, including apartments, living there.

Celebration was built for full-time residents, while Gold Oak will target wealthier vacationing families, a demographic Disney has not fully gone after in the past. Its Orlando resort already offers up 10 higher-end hotels, but those have been operating for some time.

“The affluent market is an area where we haven’t offered a lot of product,” said Matt Kelly, Disney real estate development VP.

As part of the plan, 30 lots will go on sale this year, with the first homes built next year. Just how many will ultimately be made available for purchase is still to be determined.

The plans come as Florida’s housing market is still struggling.

In May, the state had the nation’s third-highest foreclosure rate, according to RealtyTrac, while the average price for a new home in Orlando hovers at around $243,000. The average home price in the city fell more than 43% to $147,400 from 2007-09, according to the National Assn. of Realtors.

Yet Disney isn’t the only theme park operator that’s seriously eyed homes as a way to generate new revenue.

Although neighboring Universal Parks and Resorts has yet to enter the home market, its Hollywood counterpart has plans to do so. It plans 2,900 apartments and condos built into its $3 billion redevelopment of the 391-acre property that houses U’s studio, backlot, theme park, CityWalk, the Gibson Amphitheater and other entertainment venues. A new 500-room hotel is also part of the plan.

Overseas, Pinewood Studios’ owners had envisioned building 1,400 homes as part of expansion plans, which would have included the construction of several permanent sets. The plans were rejected late last year, however, due to environmental concerns.

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