Once upon a time, there was a dream. Millions of little children would flock to a magical kingdom in the heart of an old continent that has known too much sorrow and war. The children would laugh and play. Their loving parents would forget their cares for a few brief hours. And the pockets of the men who built the kingdom would fill with gold.
At least part of the dream has come true: the massive Euro Disney resort rising out of old sugar-beet fields 30 km east of Paris celebrated its first anniversary in mid-April with a burst of fireworks. But this fairy tale is still far from a happy ending. For investors, Euro Disney has turned out to be the financial equivalent of the roller coaster that roars through Big Thunder Mountain—a terrifying plunge from visions of windfall profits to the present reality of deepening losses.
Transplanting the glittering Disney dream to world-weary Europe was never going to be easy: Mickey Mouse and Snow White were arrivistes in the land of Molière and Sartre. Even before Euro Disney opened on April 12, 1992, French intellectuals sounded the alarm. Disney, they chorused, was just the latest example of American cultural imperialism that had appropriated European myths and fairy tales and was now selling them back to Europe in sanitized form. In a typical diatribe, writer Ariane Mnouchkine moaned that Euro Disney would be a “cultural Chernobyl,” a “horror made of cardboard, plastic and appalling colors.” Not all the opposition was verbal: hours before the opening, saboteurs blew up an electricity pylon and plunged much of the complex into darkness.
Euro Disney also ran into trouble trying to duplicate the formula that has been so successful in California and Florida, as well as at Tokyo Disneyland, Disney’s first foreign theme park, which has prospered since opening in 1983. The “Disney Look”—a rigid code of employee appearance that imposes a wellscrubbed, all-American look on all 12,000 "cast members”—earned particular scorn from the French. Employees, it states, may not smoke, chew gum or dye their hair an unusual shade; all must use deodorant and wear “proper underwear.” Disney executives insisted that it was essential to maintain the “magic” at the heart of their show. Disaffected workers, though, told tales of being spied on by undercover management operatives, and quickly labelled the Magic Kingdom “Mouseschwitz.”
Worse, Euro Disney executives had mis-
judged their market. They maintained the same stiff entrance fees year-round ($51 for adults; $34 for children), despite Paris’s gloomy winter weather and Europeans’ tendency to stick to fixed vacation dates. Expecting Europeans to demand more substantial sit-down meals and tasteful souvenirs, they built expensive restaurants and tony gift shops; in fact, patrons adopted the American practice of “grazing” at fast-food outlets and snapped up garish mementoes emblazoned with portraits of Mickey, Goofy and Dumbo.
As a result, the company is making changes. Frenchman Philippe Bourguignon took over as chairman from American Robert Fitzpatrick. Prices are being dropped in the off-season. And special festivities to celebrate such European holidays as Bastille Day (France) and Oktoberfest (Germany) will replace events tied to American holidays. “We’ve adapted this park for European tastes,” says Malcolm Ross, Euro Disney’s vice-president.
Not all is gloomy. By the end of April, Euro Disney now predicts, it will reach its first-year goal of 11 million visitors. That makes it far and away the biggest tourist attraction in France, outdrawing the Eiffel Tower (5.4 million) and the Louvre (5 million). Ordinary Europeans, not surprisingly, have paid little attention to the
shrill alarms of the intellectuals. Europe may be full of real castles and dungeons, but Europeans seem as enticed by Disney’s fantasy version of their history as are North Americans. German families wander through Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, inspired by Ludwig of Bavaria’s castle on the Rhine, while Britons are happy to travel all the way to Euro Disney for a simulated flight with Peter Pan that takes them over the rooftops of Victorian London.
The problem for Euro Disney executives is that too many visitors are daytrippers from Paris or short-term guests. Surrounding the theme park is a massive $5.2-billion resort complex that includes 5,700 hotel rooms. But hotel bookings have fallen far short of predictions, and analysts say Euro Disney will lose as much as $230 million in its first year. Its shares, which hit a high of $37 last spring, are now worth just $20. One French bank, Paribas, maintains that Euro Disney faces years of losses, and has urged stockholders to sell now. European families may have embraced the Disney dream. But investors in the fairy tale are still searching for signs that they will live happily—and lucratively—ever after.
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