Mouse: Bring it on

Disney sez it's set for Mr. Toad's economic wild ride

NEW YORK — Walt Disney Chairman Michael Eisner and other top Mouse execs acknowledged Tuesday that a soft economy would take its toll but that the company’s diverse businesses, from theme parks to retail to film and TV, plus sharp cost cutting, will help it weather a slowdown in any case. Upcoming pics “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” and “Pearl Harbor” won’t hurt either, they predicted.

“Overall, we feel extremely good about the recession-resistant nature of your company’s assets and our ability to anticipate change and react accordingly,” Disney chief financial officer Tom Staggs told hundreds of shareholders at the company’s annual meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, on Tuesday.

A weaker economy also makes it easier to grow through acquisitions. “With our strong balance sheet and cash flow, we are well positioned to take advantage of opportunities that may arise,” he added in prepared remarks.

No one named potential targets. Disney has said it wants to expand in TV and radio. Last week it bought half of Us Weekly from Wenner Media in a small publishing deal. And rumors continue to link Disney with Yahoo!, although Eisner has worried that the giant portal is still too expensive.

On other matters:

  • Eisner presented Disney’s board of directors (including Sidney Poitier) for reelection and also introduced his own wife, Jane Eisner, as “someone who is not an actual board member but is certainly an integral partner in the decision-making of the chairman of the Walt Disney Co.” The board was reelected.

  • Consumer products is slowly turning around, execs said. The Mouse has signed some high profile merchandising and marketing deals lately, with Coca-Cola for one. Earlier this week, Disney agreed to pay $350 million to lock up the Winnie the Pooh franchise through 2026.

  • Chief operating officer Bob Iger said the studio “is operating at a very exciting time” after a tough period of high costs and lower revenue. He said the rough patch was due to Disney competitors trying their hands at animation, with little success.

  • Disney said it will release “Snow White” this fall on DVD only for a six-week window, along with a Walt Disney Records release of the original soundtrack, including a special rendition of “Someday My Prince Will Come” by Barbra Streisand.

At Tuesday’s meeting, shareholders also approved a proposal to issue up to 100 million new shares to be awarded as stock options. They rejected a proposal sponsored by the Boston-based group Responsible Wealth that would have granted stock options to all Disney employees.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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