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Mouse House aims to perk up its parks

Disney destinations on upswing after post-9/11 downturn

NEW YORK — Disney is not resting on its rides to pump its theme parks. The company’s 11 worldwide resorts and other destinations are pulling themselves up after a post- 9/11downturn.

So said Jim Hunt, exec veep-chief financial officer of parks and resorts, who talked up a half-dozen initiatives designed to enhance the experience of visitors, draw them in large numbers or both. He spoke at the Bank of America media confab Wednesday afternoon.

“Our destinations around the world are the gateways that people often use to connect with the Disney brand,” Hunt said in suggesting the larger importance of the unit to the Mouse House as a whole.

Attendance was up 5% in 2005 over the previous year in the domestic parks and up 9% in the first quarter this year.

“We hope to be welcoming our 2 billionth guest to our turnstiles sometime this year,” Hunt said. He pointed in particular to the Expedition Everest attraction, which opens shortly in Orlando, complete with a high-tech yeti.

He also said park properties are the inspiration for movies in many cases, citing movie franchise “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which is also inspiring the division to create new attractions.

Unit, which accounts for almost 25% of the conglom’s annual income, is offering vacationers customized tickets and personalized services under its just-launched Magic Your Way and Extra Magic Hours initiatives.

Latter whisks visitors to Orlando back and forth from the airport without having to wait for baggage or line up for security checks.

Hunt said the company is testing a lodging initiative involving larger parties of visitors under the rubric Family Suites, which would cost $160 a night and hence open up stays to a wider array of possible participants.

He emphasized that owning hotels as well as the parks themselves was a great advantage to Disney, indicating that on-property guests spend more time and money at the resorts than do outsiders.

On the cost-containment front, Hunt said a lot of effort is going into strikingthe right balance between a full and part-time work force (70% of all Disney employees are in the parks division). To wit: In the future, the shift would be toward more part-time “cast members.” And drug coverage for employees would encourage more use of generics and mail order.

On the international front, Hunt hailed the Hong Kong model, in which Disney put up $314 million of the $3.5 billion investment of debt and equity and still retained a 43% stake in the venture.

Division is also experimenting with a separate Adventures by Disney flank business, which will pilot a number of new locales this year — the U.K., Paris, Rome and the Canadian Rockies.

And the company’s cruise liner Disney Magic will for the first time set sail for the Mediterranean in May 2007, docking at Barcelona and offering eight different localized sailings from there.