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It's Batman Vs. Mickey in Not So Comic Battle : Theme parks: Time Warner, Disney get down and dirty in effort to promote Magic Mountain and Disneyland.

April 20, 1993|PATRICE APODACA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During the past few days, officials at Magic Mountain have had a lot to worry about. On Saturday, the Valencia park was hit by waves of violence as rampaging youths smashed windows and looted merchandise.

The cause of the melee remains unclear, but fingers have been pointed at rap music fans and the park itself for overbooking a concert. The Sheriff's Department said it would investigate the park and its admission practices.

While that episode might leave Magic Mountain with a black eye, the park's owner, Six Flags Corp.--which is half-owned by Time Warner Inc.--has also been busy dealing with an ongoing marketing battle with rival Walt Disney Co. Call it Batman vs. Mickey Mouse in the theme park advertising wars.

"Through looking at Disneyland?" asks a billboard in Chatsworth that shows pictures of Six Flags Magic Mountain's roller coasters and water rides. "Come to Six Flags for the Rides!"

A local television commercial shows the dog of one family that went to Magic Mountain as he happily chomps on a bone. Meanwhile, the dog of the family that went to Disneyland sits forlornly in a cage.

A Six Flags spokesperson said the ads are "intended to be in good humor." But Mickey Mouse is not amused, and the flap over the ads has developed into a rather nasty battle between Disney and Time Warner, which operates the Six Flags parks.

The tiff between the two media concerns actually began about a year ago, when the current Six Flags ad campaign began, and the tensions have built up in recent months.

Since taking control of Six Flags in 1991, Time Warner has borrowed some of Disney's well-proved concepts for its theme parks, such as using a movie or comic book character as the basis for an attraction. For instance, the company's Warner Bros. studios made the Batman movies and now the caped crusader is the theme for attractions at the Six Flags parks, including a Batman stunt show at Magic Mountain.

"Time Warner very much looks up to Disney" in the way Disney employs characters and other themes in its attractions, Six Flags spokeswoman Ann Brackbill said. So now, "instead of just putting up a roller coaster, Six Flags is making the whole structure themed to a particular attraction."

But it's the Six Flags advertising campaign that has Disney really ticked off.

Across the country, the ads tout attractions at the seven Six Flags parks that "the whole family can enjoy together"--roller coasters, live animals and a Bugs Bunny-themed circus show. The ads promote the parks' relatively easy access compared to Disneyland in Anaheim and Disney World in Florida. Some also stress lower ticket prices at Six Flags parks, although locally there's not much difference: Magic Mountain charges $26 for a regular adult ticket, Disneyland $28.75.

Disney Chairman Michael Eisner reportedly became increasingly incensed after he complained to Time Warner executives--including Robert Pittman, chief executive of the division that runs Six Flags--and the ads continued to run.

In a countermove, Disney several months ago stopped all theme park-related advertising in Time Warner publications, which amounted to about $5 million last year. Also, Disney's local TV station, KCAL, won't run the Six Flags commercials.

Undaunted, Time Warner is stepping up the Six Flags advertising blitz. In the Los Angeles area, more than 250 billboards of various sizes are being erected, all intended to lure away business from Disneyland. A print ad campaign is also set to begin this year.

Compared to Disneyland, Magic Mountain is still a pipsqueak competitor. Disneyland drew 11.6 million visitors last year, according to Amusement Business magazine. Magic Mountain--the most popular of Time Warner's seven Six Flags theme parks--had 3.2 million. Disney's theme parks and resorts division's annual revenues are $3.3 billion, compared to about $500 million at the Six Flags parks.

Some observers suggest that the advertising feud is only the beginning of more complex tensions between the two media concerns. While competitors, Disney and Time Warner also cooperate in many of their businesses and have interlocking arrangements that could be threatened by such a rift. Time Warner, for instance, distributes Disney records, books and magazines.

John Dreyer, a Disney spokesman, wouldn't say if the advertising dispute could affect other relationships between the two media concerns. But he characterized the cancellation of Disney's Time Warner advertising as strictly a business decision.

"What it boils down to is we were spending money to advertise our theme parks, which was then spent to advertise in a way that was negative to our theme parks," he said. "It didn't make good business sense to keep advertising with Time Warner."

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