Fissures are beginning to appear in Central Florida’s $28 billion tourism industry over whether to embrace high-stakes gambling, something most industry leaders have long considered incompatible with the region’s carefully cultivated reputation for family-friendly entertainment.

With casino executives aggressively lobbying the Florida Legislature to build Las Vegas-style casino resorts in South Florida, some local tourism leaders say Central Florida must consider following suit — or risk losing convention business to Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

“It is now, I think, a certainty that casino gaming is coming to Dade County. And at some point in time we have to start getting very serious about analyzing the positives or the negatives vis-à-vis casino gaming,” said Harris Rosen, whose Orlando hotel empire includes three sprawling hotels near the Orange County Convention Center. “My own sense is that it would give our friends in South Florida a decided advantage if they had gaming and we didn’t.”

Rosen last week asked the region’s tourism bureau to study the prospect of casinos. And he isn’t the only one who thinks Orlando might have to consider casinos.

“We’d have a little mini-Vegas 200 miles from us,” said Alan Villaverde, managing director of the Peabody Orlando, the 1,641-room hotel owned by Belz Enterprises next to the county-run convention center. “If they open the door to one community, then our owner feels they have to open it to every community, particularly a big convention destination.”
The comments could put the hoteliers at odds with other influential tourism interests in the region, including the biggest: Walt Disney World, which has historically opposed any efforts to expand gambling anywhere in Florida.

On Thursday, Disney signaled it will do just that again this year.

“We really think it disagrees or conflicts with the family-friendly brand of Florida,” Disney spokesman Mike Griffin said during a meeting with the Orlando Sentinel’s editorial board. The Disney representative was joined by the head of No Casinos Inc., an anti-gambling group that Disney helps fund, and Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings.

The contingent was also joined by Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. The statewide business-lobbying group has in recent years avoided gambling disputes in the state Capitol, but Wilson said the chamber will fight any plans to expand gambling during the next legislative session, which begins Jan. 10.

“This commercial casino gambling … is one of the biggest threats to the future of Florida that’s on the drawing board right now,” Wilson said.

The newly installed chairman of the chamber’s board of directors is Walt Disney World’s chief financial officer.

Local tourism leaders remain largely unified in opposing any plans to expand gambling generally.

“If we had our choice, we’d probably remain as we are now [without gaming],” Villaverde said, though he added, “Personally, I think the barriers with gambling are breaking down. It’s not a question of if, but when, gambling comes to Florida.”

The local industry’s divisions lie in what to do should casino operators such as Genting Malaysia, Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts win state permission to build in South Florida.

Of the organizations pushing for gambling resorts in Florida, Genting Malaysia has released the most details about its plans. The company, which has acquired a prime parcel on Biscayne Bay in Miami, said it wants to build a $3 billion resort that would include 5,200 hotel rooms and 700,000 square feet of convention-and-meeting space — more than the Peabody Orlando, the Hilton Orlando and the Rosen Centre combined.

Last year, Orlando was home to more than 980 meetings and events brokered by Visit Orlando, the region’s main convention-and-visitors bureau. The local conventions industry drew 3.2 million overnight visitors who spent an estimated $3.2 billion, according to Visit Orlando.

But that is a small fraction of Orlando’s tourism market overall. Visit Orlando estimates the destination had 30.4 million total overnight visitors last year, many of whom were headed to the region’s family-friendly attractions.

Whether Orlando’s conventions and trade shows would relocate to Miami or Fort Lauderdale if those cities added gambling is up in the air. Orlando has been criticized by some trade groups for its lack of night life. But others — including church groups that frequent the destination during the convention industry’s slow summer months — might prefer a city free of gambling.

“I think we’re in a wait-and-see mode, to be honest,” said Tom Ackert, executive director of the Orange County Convention Center. “We don’t know. There’s no real way for us to gauge.”

When the Seminole Tribe of Florida was pushing to expand its gaming interests in the state four years ago, Ackert predicted that the pressure to allow gambling would expand beyond the tribe’s efforts in Tampa and South Florida. But though the convention center constantly polls its customers, “gambling has never been a part of that dialogue,” he said. Still, the center’s customers will have a chance to discuss the issue — if they choose — during a client-advisory-board meeting later this month, he said.

Rosen pushed the discussion front and center last week, calling on Visit Orlando during a county meeting to analyze the issue and report back later this year.

But Disney and other local tourism businesses that cater mainly to family leisure travel remain staunchly opposed to casinos.

“Our position has been clear: Gambling is not a good fit with the Orlando brand, which is largely built around families with children,” SeaWorld Orlando spokeswoman Becca Bides said.

Orlando’s hotel association has already made fighting destination gaming resorts a priority for the 2012 legislative session.

“We are known worldwide — and proudly known — as a family-friendly destination,” said Rich Maladecki, president of the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association. “To date, our CFHLA leadership would like to maintain that image worldwide.”

Gary Sain, president and chief executive officer of Visit Orlando, pledged to Rosen to look into the gaming issue but would not comment until his organization consults with its board members. During a recent fight over casino gambling, Sain opposed casinos in Central Florida, saying they didn’t fit Orlando’s image as a tourist destination.

“You can’t be one thing and say you’re something else,” he said at the time. “For Orlando, we are the family-entertainment, family-fun capital of the world.”