Sep 8, 2008

Need 450 acres near Disney? Get ready to fork over $150M

Orlando Sentinel
September 8, 2008
Mark Pino

One of Osceola County's grandest tourism visions remains an illusion.

A 450-acre tract planned for a theme park mixing magic and Transcendental Meditation remains vacant in the tourism corridor. Almost two decades later, the two men behind the project are dead, and the land has a $150 million price tag.

"It's a great piece of property," said Hector Lizasuain, who oversees a tax district created to beautify West U.S. Highway 192. "It's funny -- over the years, they'll put [for sale] signs up and take them down again. People call it one of the prettiest sections, maybe because there are no buildings. But it is prime real estate."

The former plant farm has remained a swatch of green foliage and wetlands that runs for nearly three-quarters of a mile among U.S. 192's glitz and kitsch, flanked by Old Town and a Cracker Barrel.

Vedaland, which means land of knowledge, was announced with much fanfare in 1989 by magician Doug Henning and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru to The Beatles who introduced the West to Transcendental Meditation. Henning died of cancer in 2000, and the Maharishi died at his home in the Dutch town of Vlodrop this year.

A Maharishi subsidiary closed on the property in 1990 for $20 million in cash. In 1996, it was on the market for $60 million after the group shifted efforts to a site in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

The park plan originally included a building seemingly suspended above water without supports, a "magic flying chariot" that took riders inside the molecular structure of a rose, and robots that would fly through the air, performing magic tricks.

The development was projected to cost $1 billion.

The backers spent hundreds of thousands of dollars planning the project and getting government approvals, which expired years ago.

It is hard to analyze the current asking price by the Maharishi Global Development Fund, said Linda Goodwin-Nichols, a Realtor who is not involved with the listing but is a member of the West U.S. 192 Redevelopment Advisory Board.

"That property has been for sale for 25 years," she said. "In today's marketplace, you don't know if it is a good price because no commercial property has sold in a long time."

The listing averages about $330,000 an acre, which Goodwin-Nichols said is "not bad for usable property," but the tract includes wetlands that would not be worth as much.

While the property is listed on tax rolls as agricultural land because of a tree-farming operation, an Internet sales listing cites a study that "suggests potential development scenarios up to 800,000 square feet of commercial space and as many as 4,300 multifamily residential units."

While the tract is zoned for a planned development, the original approvals expired in 2005. A new owner would have to start the process from the beginning, county officials said.

Goodwin-Nichols said the property might appeal to a buyer with a plan for a resort with a hotel, condos and a golf course who could acquire it for the right price and time the process so the project was ready when the economy improves.

"Now would be the perfect time," she said. "But you don't see a lot of people doing that. The stuff that is coming out of the ground now has been on the drawing table and in the process for a long time."

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