April 20, 2010 / 9:13 PM / 10 years ago

Orlando has free rides, cigars for ash cloud angst

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Stranded in Orlando, Florida, by that pesky volcanic ash cloud from Iceland?

A man smokes a cigar while standing next to a window, January 20, 2005. REUTERS/Claudia Daut

Relax, enjoy a free cigar and beer, get a free day’s entry to Walt Disney World and other famous amusement parks, or cash in on an additional free seat for a local swamp tour.

Retailers, theme park operators and hoteliers in Orlando, one of the top tourist destinations on the planet, are looking to ease the pain of thousands of stranded foreign travelers with a raft of ‘freebies,’ discounts and cut-price promotions.

The website of the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Inc has created a special link window, called European Air Service Disruption Offers, to list its promotions for frustrated fliers blocked by the ash cloud air crisis.

The tourist travel disruption comes as Orlando’s economy struggles to regain its footing in the aftermath of the economic downturn. In recent weeks, bond rating agencies Fitch and Standard & Poor’s downgraded the city’s debt tied to tourist tax revenues.

The Corona Cigar Company in the heart of Orlando’s tourist district is offering stranded European Union passengers a free cigar and beer to help them pass the time.

“Come by, have a cigar, maintain your sanity and take your mind off your worry about the situation with the volcano,” said Jeff Borysiewicz, owner of the Corona Cigar Store.

Major theme parks in Orlando — Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld — and many smaller attractions such as water parks, boat rides and golf courses were offering free admission tickets to all those who could prove they had canceled or disrupted flights.

Restaurants were serving up free and discounted food and hotels and managers of vacation homes were dropping rates.

Tourism officials say an average of 38,000 European visitors are in Orlando on any given day, and thousands were believed to have been stranded by the ash cloud crisis.

Donna Sticht, a British resort property manager who relocated to Florida six years ago, said she expected more stranded tourists to use the discounts as the days passed.

By Tuesday morning, Sticht said she had rented townhomes to four stranded families at a break-even price, and some tourists told her they had been told by their airline to be prepared to stay until May 2.

“They (the tourists) spend all their money the last week of vacation and then, ‘Oh my gosh, what are we going to do now?’” Sticht said, referring to the extra costs squeezing many blocked fliers.

No estimates were available on whether the money spent by stranded tourists would make up for the losses from overseas vacationers who could not get from Europe to Orlando.

“Sometimes it’s not about money. Sometimes you just have to help people and that’s what we’re trying to do right now,” Sticht said.

Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Peter Cooney

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