LONG BEACH — The prospect of Mickey Mouse at the helm of the Queen Mary drew raves from Long Beach officials, largely taken by surprise earlier this week with the announcement of a proposed buyout of Wrather Corp. by the Walt Disney Co. and a New Zealand millionaire.
"If they're going to be sold, I would rather it be to Disneyland than to anyone else," said Mayor Ernie Kell.
Disney executives and New Zealand millionaire Ronald A. Brierly announced Monday plans to jointly purchase all of Wrather's 7.3-million shares of publicly traded stock for $21 a share; a total price of $152.3 million.
Besides leasing the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose tourist attractions in Long Beach, Wrather owns the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim. It manages the Breakers Hotel in Long Beach and Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
A Sea of Red Ink
While roundly praising Wrather for years of strong management and hefty investment that sailed the Queen Mary out of a sea of red ink after nine years under city management, officials expressed hope that Disney can use its Magic Kingdom touch to make the complex an even greater success.
Local officials said they hope Disney and Brierley will spend millions of dollars on improvements at the Queen Mary/Spruce Goose complex. Disney plans to be an equal partner in the venture with Brierley's Industrial Equity (Pacific) Ltd. of Hong Kong.
The Wrather family, which owns 36% of the firm, has given its blessing to the deal, which is subject to approval by Wrather shareholders. The company's general counsel, Henry Pollard, said a vote probably will be taken near the end of the year.
David Hauser, president of the Harbor Commission, which leases the Queen Mary to the Beverly Hills-based Wrather, said he had heard rumors of a possible deal for several months and was delighted when the announcement came.
'I'm Quite Thrilled'
"For the port, I view it very optimistically," he said. "To be frank, I am quite thrilled. Hearing of Disney coming in, that adds more spice to it."
Noting that the Queen Mary "had more than its share of problems" before Wrather leased the historic ship from the city in 1980, Hauser said: "It thrills me when I see anything good happening there. You add the Disney group and, in my sphere, it becomes that much more meaningful."
The combination will not only help in development, he said, but in marketing as well. Disney will be to attract tourists with a package deal that includes visits to Disneyland as well as the Queen Mary/Spruce Goose.
Disney adds "additional class" to a new golden age for Long Beach, as new downtown developments are sparking international interest, Hauser said.
Kell evoked the same spirit as he predicted that the Disney group will push forward with the new development on the site.
Wrather Port Properties Ltd., the subsidiary that operates the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose, has taken out permits for a $250-million redevelopment project on the 55-acre site, which would add 405 hotel rooms, 200,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space, 900,000 square feet of commercial office space, a 125,000-square-foot exhibition area, visitors' marina and parking structures accommodating 6,500 cars.
"It's going to take someone like (Disney) to build it and once they do, it will be one of the shining stars on the West Coast," the mayor said.
Kell said Disney's participation signals another major sign of faith in the resurgence of Long Beach because "they don't invest in losers."
Councilwoman Jan Hall said that Disney is certainly "not a fly-by-night" operation and can maintain Wrather's record of success. "They have a wonderful reputation," she said. "They are experts."
City's Major Concern
She said the city's major concern would be that sound management and projects planned for the site continue. The city, she said, will always have a "soft spot" in its heart for Wrather Corp. for taking over the Queen Mary. The attraction had lost millions of dollars while under city management.
"They are picking up something in great shape. The Wrathers were the ones taking a chance," Hall said.
Councilman Wallace Edgerton said he hopes the Disney group can maintain some of the top-flight managers working at the Queen Mary/Spruce Goose under Wrather Corp. He said the Wrather family deserve the credit for making the once-endangered project work.