Mickey Mouse, Phone Home

As part of Disney's push into consumer electronics, it's targeting families with a cell-phone service featuring kid-friendly content

By Ron Grover

It owns a fleet of cruise ships, a Caribbean island, and a 220-acre Wide World of Sports athletic complex that puts on more than 60 championship events a year. Now, entertainment giant Walt Disney (DIS ) is getting into the cell-phone business. Its July 6 announcement that it will launch its own Disney Mobile phone service is the ultimate in branding for a company that boasts some of the world's best-known products. It's "reach out and touch someone" with Mickey Mouse on the receiver.

Will families buy a phone because Disney offers it and programs it with all kinds of Disneyana content, such as Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah ring tones and Buzz Lightyear video games? That's what Disney intends. The media conglomerate, famously tight-lipped, isn't offering much info other than the phone will be available sometime next year. Disney will provide the phone service, billing, and dial tone.


  To accomplish this, Disney intends to hire and train its own staff. It will simply rent time on the Sprint PCS (FON ) network to beam the phone service to folks and their kids. With millions of Disneyites already signed up to one Disney affinity program or another, the odds are the company can get the word out through e-mails, circulars, and other communication.

The Disney Mobile effort is targeted at families with kids 11 to 14, so parents can have a quick and easy way to stay in touch with the children, according to a Disney spokeswoman. The idea is "to create an engaging and easy-to-use mobile experience," said Steve Wadsworth, president of the Walt Disney Internet Group, in a prepared statement. The conglomerate already supplies Disney ring tones, downloaded games, and other content to wireless service providers throughout the world.

This is simply Disney's latest effort to burst into the fast-growing world of consumer electronics. For the last few years, the Mouse House has worked with Memcorp, the parent company of Memorex, to produce a line of consumer-electronic products with a little Disney magic sprinkled in -- alarm clocks that wake kids up to Disneyesque music, or Disney televisions with Mickey ears. The company is soon coming out with MP3 players for music with Mickey themes as well as fare from the Disney Channel show That's So Raven.


  Disney's digital push hasn't always worked. It didn't do well last year with a kiddie version of a computer that, together with printer, sold for close to $1,000. It's planning to get back in the PC market later this year with a cheaper version.

Disney, however, loves to flaunt its brands. Sometime this year, its ESPN unit will begin to market a handset to sports-loving cell-phone users that will not only deliver voice service, but also sports news, information, scores, stats, and photos. Like the new Disney Mobile phone, the ESPN Mobile phone will have the ESPN brand name for all to see. After all, if you have it, you may as well market it.

Grover is BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau chief

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