July 9, 2008

The Orlando Sentinel, Fla., Beth Kassab Column

By Beth Kassab, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

Jul. 9--As president of worldwide operations for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Al Weiss travels around the globe as he oversees its most famous theme parks. These days, he is also looking across continents for another reason: church planting.

In the time since his promotion from president of Disney World was announced in November 2005, Weiss' passion outside the office -- a multidenominational church building organization he founded called Vision360 -- has also taken on a worldwide mission and grown at a brisk pace.

In a rare interview published Sunday on the religious Web site TheHighCalling.org, Weiss expanded on the group's focus under the headline, "Serving God in the Mouse House."

Weiss and his wife, Doreen, along with another couple and the Baptist General Conference started Vision360 in Orlando in November 2004 with a focus on creating more churches here.

"But we quickly sensed God wanted us to expand this model for church planting around the U.S.," Weiss told the Web site. "Now our focus is not on one geographic location, like a Disney park, but on the globe. So we are looking for people who have a global heart and mindset to reach across the world through church planting."

Weiss has long been a high-profile player on the local business scene, serving in prominent positions such as past chairman of the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission and immediate past president of the foundation board of directors of his alma mater, UCF.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer in 2006 credited Weiss with being instrumental in swaying a critical group of hoteliers to support raising the local tax on hotel rooms to pay for tourism marketing and big community projects such as a new Orlando Magic Arena.

Now his status in religious circles is soaring nationally and internationally, primarily through connecting business executives and church leaders in cities across the country.

That's happened here as well. CNL Financial Group Chairman Jim Seneff said through a spokeswoman that he has donated land as well as design and construction management services for Vision360's headquarters.

"In the church world Al Weiss' character, having worked at Disney and risen up the ranks, that speaks volumes," said Chan Kilgore, executive director of Vision360 Central Florida. "I think his character along with his sheer competency as a business leader has garnered great respect among the religious community."

Weiss, through his assistant, declined to be interviewed for this column.

He is the son of a Baptist minister and a member of Faith Baptist Church in Kissimmee. The 16 churches his group has established so far in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties span denominations from Baptist General Conference to Southern Baptist to independent churches.

According to its Web site, Vision360 is working in 17 major U.S. cities spanning from Orlando to Los Angeles. And it's a big-money operation. The group's goal is to raise $6 million in each city, the Web site says.

As if that wasn't ambitious enough, Vision360 also wants to start churches in the largest cities in the world. It's already working in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and is looking toward places like Nigeria.

Asked how open he is about his faith at Disney, Weiss told TheHighCalling.org that he doesn't speak about it on a regular basis, but it's not something he hides.

"People know my parents were in ministry; my dad was a church planter when he grew up," he said.

"We have many Bible studies on our property; I've been asked to speak about my faith to those groups. In the corporate world, I think the most important thing is to do your job to the best of your abilities. At the end of the day, that's what they appreciate and care about."

Beth Kassab can be reached at [email protected] or 407-420-5448. Read her blog at orlandosentinel.com/thebottomline.


To see more of The Orlando Sentinel or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.OrlandoSentinel.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.