Fitzpatrick, EuroDisney part ways

Robert Fitzpatrick is stepping down as chairman of the giant but troubled EuroDisney theme park. Having shepherded the park through a less-than-magical opening year, Fitzpatrick announced last week that he will leave, effective April 12.

Fitzpatrick, who intends to set up an international consulting company in Paris, will be replaced by 44-year-old Philippe Bourguignon, a marketing and hotel business whiz who was promoted to prez of the company last September.

Bourguignon’s September promotion coincided with Fitzpatrick being named to the newly created post of chairman and led to speculation that his days at the park were numbered.

“It was never clearly stated, but I think most observers felt that neither Disney nor Fitzpatrick ever intended for him to run the operational theme park for too long,” said one London-based analyst.

The Paris stock market reacted calmly to the news Friday. EuroDisney shares closed at 66 francs ($ 11.98), up from 64 ($ 11.62).

“It isn’t that much of a surprise. I think we all expected Bourguignon to be put in charge in order to give the company more of a French feel,” said Courcoux Bouvet analyst Pierre Flabbee.

“I think the market perceived that Bourguignon has been basically running the company since September. Fitzpatrick’s departure doesn’t mean the EuroDisney is going to undertake a strategic swerve,” said Morgan Stanley analyst Rebecca Winnington-Ingram.

Since being named president in 1987, Fitzpatrick has generally been regarded as a suave diplomat who successfully smoothed the way to last year’s EuroDisney opening “on time and on budget,” to use his own catchphrase.

But the early operating months have proven an uphill struggle. When company results were announced in November, lower-than-expected spending by visitors contributed to $ 35 million losses and a warning that more red ink will flow this year.

Few people believe that EuroDisney will hit its target of 11 million visitors over a full operating year; there was further embarrassment when it was announced that for the first time in Disney theme park history, one of the main on-site hotels was closing for the winter.

In addition, most analysts have attached a firm sell sign to the EuroDisney stock, pushing the shares below the 72 francs ($ 13) issue price.

Such have been the financial pressures on the theme park that parent company Walt Disney has been forced to defer its base management fee for fiscal 1992 and 1993. Disney is entitled to a management fee fixed at 3% of total revenue.

EuroDisney’s latest effort to weather what promises to be a difficult winter has been to offer discount tickets to families living in the Ile de France region surrounding Paris. Ironically, reducing ticket prices was one of the courses of action Fitzpatrick always said wouldn’t be taken.

Before taking the top job at EuroDisney, Fitzpatrick was president of California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), the Valencia-based arts college founded by Walt Disney. Fitzpatrick was also the organizer for the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984.

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