Anni offers opportunity to tout core park strengths

In recent weeks, the Walt Disney Co. has been ramping up the marketing around Disneyland’s 50th anniversary in an attempt to rally attendance and income at its theme parks to pre-Sept. 11 levels.

For the first time, Disney will conduct a global marketing effort. It’s called the Happiest Celebration on Earth — riffing off of Disneyland’s long-time advertising line, the Happiest Place on Earth. Disney’s hope is to improve its already well-known brand name — Disneyland — that is attached to many, but not, all of its 11 theme parks.

“Disneyland is really a worldwide brand,” says Michael Mendenhall, exec VP of global marketing for Disney parks and resorts. “It is very exportable. When you go market to market, your perception of Disneyland is a similar idea.”

In the past, Disney’s marketing labors include many nostalgically themed campaigns, such as its Magic Happens promotion in 2000 that used emotionally themed videos of kids, parents or grandparents talking about Disneyland. Other domestically focused campaigns include Disney World’s 25th anniversary, the Disney Millennium celebration and Walt Disney’s 100th birthday.

Now Disney intends to go back to its core strengths, touting new rides, attractions, celebrations and parades. The spot developed by Walt Disney and its long-time agency Leo Burnett Co. will be played in some form around the world.

“This is the largest global marketing campaign that we have ever done,” says Mendenhall. “But it doesn’t mean that this will be incrementally more (marketing money) overall. It will be a similar creative execution around the world. It allows us to be more efficient.”

A special 60-second TV commercial, “Coming Home,” blends for the first time a number of Disney characters in CGI animation with live-action scenes from around the world — all looking to “come home.”

Using his previous Disney feature marketing experience, Mendenhall pushed to hire Alan Silvestri, who has composed music for Disney films, to write new music for the commercial, as well as bring in Kelsey Grammer in for the commercial’s voiceover.

Starting with ABC’s Tournament of Roses Parade on January, Disney ran the TV commercial on other broadcast networks during the day, and it was simultaneously streamed on Yahoo!, MSN, About.com, Excite.com, Google.com, Weather.com and Disney.com.

Disney’s marketing efforts are focused on reviving its theme parks’ revenue and attendance. Ever since Sept. 11, the number of visitors — or “guests” as Disney likes to call them — has fallen off dramatically, a problem that still exists at some of its foreign parks. Domestic attendance has recovered — though there is some fear that rising gas prices could dampen turnout this summer.

In addition, shareholder and theme-park critics have said Disney has let rides and attractions become passe or fall into disrepair. Only recently has Disney looked to make improvements.

“The general feeling was that they are not maintaining their efforts with the same zeal,” says George Geis, associate dean at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. “If you look at the operating income for the segment, it is down 40% to 50% (in recent years).”

Back in 2001, the theme-park unit put up $1.6 billion in operating income. By 2003, it dropped to $957 million. In 2004, the unit came back up to $1.1 billion.

Foreign visitation to Disney World is still slow, even though there is a favorable exchange rate against a weakened dollar.

“It appears things are better for the theme parks this year. But it’s a very tenuous thing,” says Dennis McAlpine, managing director of investment banker McAlpine & Associates. “A bomb in an airport can change everything.”

To that end, Disney is looking for more revs from new non-U.S. parks. In September, it will open Hong Kong Disneyland — and is considering other Asian parks.

“There is a lot of desire to shift capital to other parts of the world in the next decade,” says Geis. “You look at where the wealth is going to move.” Later on, that might include a park in India.

Being more attentive to local customs and social attitudes, Disney carefully surveyed its potential consumer based for Hong Kong Disneyland — which included feng shui-ing all its rides and amusements, says McAlpine.

This could be a lesson learned at Disney, say analysts, that marketing and attraction development needs to keep pace — which is a reflection of what Walt Disney himself said about the theme parks.

Says Geis: “Walt Disney said the parks are never really done.”

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