Tinker Bell, sprites in charge at Mouse

Snow White and Cinderella don’t bother with rates of return. They’ve got other issues — evil stepmothers, poisoned apples, etc. And now, they’ve got Fairies nipping at their heels.

Walt Disney consumer products chief Andy Mooney does the division’s numbers crunching.

What he sees in his magic mirror, he says, is “modest, single-digit growth” this year for Disney Princesses, the retail juggernaut that’s captured the hearts of small girls worldwide — and plenty of their parents’ dough.

The fair five, including Sleeping Beauty, Belle and Jasmine, are ubiquitous, adorning dishes, sheets, bedding (and beds), dolls and dresses. But their explosive sales growth over the past five years is starting to slow after hitting a fairy-tale $3.4 billion in worldwide retail sales in fiscal 2006.

That’s why Princesses will be passing the baton to a whole new group of gals: the Disney Fairies, with Tinker Bell as the Fairy-in-Chief.

“I think it could be as big as Princesses,” says Mooney.

The Mouse has started ramping up its Fairy fare, which is in stores now, and will keep churning ahead of a “Tinker Bell” movie coming in the fall of 2008, direct to video, with Brittany Murphy voicing Tink. One pic a year will follow for at least four years.

The movies are all-CGI, with stories in development.

Mooney notes that John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Walt Disney Feature Animation, has taken a keen interest in the sprites. “When you get someone with (Lasseter’s) creativity into the mix, you have unlimited possibilities,” Mooney says.

Mooney says a soft launch on Disney.com that lets users create their own fairies has been a roaring success. “It’s been up 10 days now and we have 45,000 unique fairies created,” he says proudly.

There are some fairy skeptics, including a few Wall Streeters.

But most are willing to give Mooney a chance. After all, he’s the whiz who came to Disney from Nike in 2000 and created Princesses by simply glomming together pre-existing properties — one of the biggest success stories in marketing history. It helped revive the Mouse’s flailing consumer products division, which was falling off a cliff in the late 1990s and dragging the rest of the company down with it.

Mooney says Tinker Bell already commands a fairly substantial market. For instance, Tink merchandise accounts for 4% of all sales at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, which “makes it an $800 million business right out the door, at a minimum.”

Tink and her fairy friends live in Pixie Hollow in Never Never Land. Their bright color palette — no pink! — targets slightly older girls of 4 to 8 years old. Fairy products will cover all the same ground Princesses do but expand into items like stationery, accessories and apparel.

A key difference in the two lines, one that has major implications for film, TV and other projects, is that unlike the Princesses — who are side by side but never interact — the fairies can. Except for Tinker Bell, they are all new creations with stories still to be invented and told.

And parents who’ve fretted about the retro message of Princesses — wear pink, marry a handsome prince — can relax. There are no men in Fairyland, at least so far.

“The Fairies … they’re pretty independent. Peter Pan is about the only guy who’s showing up,” says Mooney.

But Mooney has no intention of abandoning the Princesses. He’s refreshing the royal line by dressing them all in gold. Disney will showcase the gold Princesses at Toy Fair, the tradeshow unspooling in Gotham Feb. 11.

In September, a DVD called “Enchanted Tales, Follow Your Dreams” will feature new music and stories with the gold versions of Sleeping Beauty, Jasmine and Belle. “In order to sustain the consumer, you have to have new ways to present the property … Gold is a very regal color. A color other than pink,” Mooney observes.

The Princess line is “enduring. That’s what I like the best about it,” he says. “You will see movies introducing new Princesses. Between legacy and future product, I would expect three to four years from now it will still be a $3 billion-$4 billion business.”

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