Sun, Jun 17, 2012 - Page 11 News List

Disney banking on US$1.1bn makeover to lift fortunes

Disney’s California Adventure park, branded an ‘eyesore’ by CEO Robert Iger before, is counting on stronger Disney-themed rides and experiences to pull in the crowd despite a sputtering economy

By Brooks Barnes  /  NY Times News Service, ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA

People ride the Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land, on the eve of the public grand reopening of Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim, California, on Thursday.

Photo: Reuters

Thousands of people camped on the street overnight waiting to get in. Media coverage by more than 400 print, online and broadcast outlets. Dozens of costumed characters foxtrotting to Ain’t We Got Fun. Fireworks at 8am.

This is what a Disney do-over looks like.

With military-style precision on Friday morning, Walt Disney Co unveiled its US$1.1 billion improvements to its California Adventure park in Anaheim, a “reopening” intended to fix what CEO Robert Iger recently described as “a brand eyesore.”

Adjacent to Disneyland, but greatly lagging it in name recognition and profits, California Adventure has new features that include a 5-hectare expansion dedicated to Pixar’s Cars movies and the lavish re-theming of the park’s entrance, where 1920s-era references to Walt Disney have replaced contemporary California imagery.

Iger arrived for the opening ceremony on a red trolley car, leaning from a window and beaming as he flashed a thumbs-up sign.

“I think we’ve pretty much nailed it,” he said afterward, watching guests race from the front gates to Cars Land.

Wall Street certainly hopes so. As the entertainment conglomerate leans harder on its US$12 billion theme park business for growth, California Adventure is under pressure to at long last live up to its promise — a tall order given the fragile economy. Opened 11 years ago on the old parking lot of the original Disneyland, California Adventure was intended to complement its sister park and turn Anaheim into a multiday vacation hub — a kind of miniature Orlando, Florida, where Disney has six theme parks and three dozen hotels.

The idea was to induce people to come not just for a day, but for a whole weekend or longer, preferably sleeping at Disney-owned hotels and eating in Disney-owned restaurants. Or so Iger’s predecessor, Michael Eisner, envisioned.

However, the new park, which had its own ticketing, restaurants and rides and thematic areas like a beach boardwalk and a Hollywood section, was a colossal disappointment. Visitors and the news media complained that the property lacked the company’s trademark over-the-top design touches. Disney characters popped up infrequently. Moreover, the overall premise fell flat: California-themed rides for a California customer base?

The focus of the overhaul, five years in the making, was adding what Iger called “Disney DNA” — more characters and experiences painstakingly engineered to tug at emotions. To that end, new rides are built around Toy Story and The Little Mermaid, and an US$80 million fountain show combines music, lighting and 1,200 programmable jets of water to bring Disney characters to life.

California Adventure attracted about 6.3 million visitors last year, a trickle compared with the 16.1 million who swarmed Disneyland. Disney hopes the improved California Adventure will take some of the stress off its vaunted neighbor, which is often so crowded that guests are unpleasantly packed elbow to elbow.

However, higher profit is the main goal and that will come primarily from higher ticket prices. In preparation for the opening, Disney increased the cost for a two-day “park hopper” pass in Anaheim to US$200 for visitors age 10 and up, compared with US$173 previously. A successful California Adventure would lift spending at Disney’s three hotels here, which were recently expanded and refurbished.

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