Looking for thrills? The world of Disney has always been a good place for them. Take that scream-inducing roller-coaster ride, replete with stomach-churning falls from on high--oh, we're just talking about the stock price.
The gyrations have been in all the wrong places for Disney of late. Recently the company shut down its Go.com website, laid off 400 of its 2,000 Internet employees and wrote off more than $800 million stemming from its slumping online operations. And famed value investor Warren Buffett dealt the stock, which has been lagging the S&P 500 since November, a psychic blow by revealing that his Berkshire Hathaway company had dumped 80% of its Disney holdings by last March. After two years of such disappointments, and enough bumps and jolts in its movies, TV, consumer products and cable businesses to compete with its Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride, the entertainment giant is trying to put the excitement back where it belongs.
That's the mission of Disney's California Adventure, its newest theme park, which opened last week in Anaheim, across the street from the original Disneyland. Theme parks are something Disney has always done well. Last year the parks accounted for about 27% of the company's $25.4 billion in sales and nearly 50% of its $3.2 billion in operating profits. In the company's most recent quarter, "once again, parks and resorts proved to be an extraordinary driver of higher earnings," noted ceo Michael Eisner. The new 55-acre California Adventure is part of a $1.4 billion expansion that aims to keep the Mouse a step ahead of ever more powerful competitors like Universal Studios, now part of the $70 billion French media conglomerate Vivendi Universal.
California Adventure will advance Disney's latest theme-park strategy, which seeks to offer as much for parents as for kids. Inside the park, kids rule, once Mom or Dad pops for the $43 admission: there's a giant Ferris wheel, a soggy river-rafting ride and the usual characters. The theme is intended to capture the feeling of touring the Golden State, from the Napa Valley to Yosemite to Hollywood.
Outside lies Downtown Disney, an admission-free, quarter-mile-long shopping and dining esplanade for the adults. The mall, which has already proved popular in Florida's Disney World, was designed to attract not only theme-park guests but also local residents and conventiongoers from the newly renovated Anaheim Convention Center nearby. It will offer such grownup attractions as live entertainment at the House of Blues and the world's most elaborate sports bar at ESPN Zone. You will be able to get an adult beverage, both there and in one of the gourmet restaurants in the new park. (What would Uncle Walt think!) And plopped right in the middle of it all is the Grand Californian, a 751-room craftsman-style luxury hotel that's part Gustav Stickley, part Swiss chalet and all Disney.
The idea, of course, is to prevent the customers from leaving until Mickey has all their money. Disneyland was designed to be a one-day romp for most guests; Disney's California Adventure is a multiple-day, capital-R Resort. "We really transformed Orlando into a resort-vacation destination," says Paul Pressler, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. "And now our second park here in Southern California is striving to do the same thing."