Reanimating Disney World

The Tower of Terror: It's Disney World's stomach-rearranging new ride, a simulated elevator free fall. But is it a metaphor for the resort, too? With its mainstay family audience flat, Florida tourism soft, and rivals sapping business, Disney World's attendance is off sharply. It's scrambling to lure new visitors, substantially boosting spending on ads and marketing this year--and, too, on future attractions--to lure teens and childless adults.

The new push represents a startling admission by Walt Disney Co. that kids alone won't pay its theme-park bills anymore. Attendance at Disney World dropped to 28.9 million last year from 33.7 million in 1990, according to the Orlando Sentinel, which recently reported the closely guarded figures. Disney won't comment on the data but admits that the number of overseas visitors--7.9 million last year--could drop by as much as 15% to 20% this year.

HEAVY ADVERTISING. That--plus problems at Disneyland and EuroDisney--is why operating profits at Disney's theme parks dropped to $684 million in the fiscal year ended on Sept. 30, from $803 million in 1990. Overall, Disney's fourth-quarter net income of $226 million exceeded expectations. But the challenge still is getting new Mouseketeers through the park doors. In '87, the Sentinel reported, 2.8 million U.S. visitors made their first trip to Disney World. In 1993, that number had dropped to 1.4 million. "The nonfamily market is bigger than the family market," says Judson C. Green, president of Walt Disney World Co. "We have something that appeals to everyone, and we're going to do a better job of communicating that."

In addition to heavy advertising, Disney is deploying sales reps throughout the country rather than concentrating them in Orlando and a few key markets. And it's stepping up new construction. Since 1990, Disney World has added seven new resort hotels and 10 new major attractions. Now, there are cruise ships, two new hotels, and a sports-training complex in the works, and a fourth park--perhaps with an animal theme--could appear by decade's end. Also coming is the Disney Institute, which will offer "learning" vacations in 1996.

Total investment: Green says $2 billion is in the ballpark, though he won't be specific. But Disney's rivals in South Florida are spending big, too. Universal Studios Florida, the Orlando joint venture of MCA Inc. and the Rank Organisation that tends to appeal to older audiences, has seen attendance grow every year since it opened in '91, says Ron Bension, chairman of MCA Recreational Services Group. And Universal is planning its own multibillion-dollar expansion, to open in 1999. It will feature a second theme park, including an attraction based on Jurassic Park, plus five resort hotels with 4,300 rooms and golf and tennis facilities.

The upshot: The theme-park business is no longer just child's play. And Orlando, whose fortunes rise and fall with its resorts, is catching on. This year's slogan from the Convention & Visitors Bureau reads: "Orlando: You never outgrow it." Not if Disney has its way.

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