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Disney Envisions Overseas Ventures Large and Small


After completing major additions to its theme parks and resorts in California, Florida and Japan, Walt Disney Co. will turn to brand-new ventures overseas in the coming decade.

Walt Disney Attractions President Judson Green said Tuesday that while full theme park-hotel complexes are possible, so are smaller centers with attractions from Disney's regional entertainment division.

Those would include Disney Quest virtual theme parks, ESPN Zone sports-themed dining and entertainment complexes, and Club Disney family play sites.

The company has been examining how to bundle its regional entertainment businesses with well-known themed restaurants and nightclubs into easy-to-replicate centers, said one insider familiar with Disney's plans.

These new centers--which more resemble the Spectrum Center in Irvine or CityWalk in Universal City than a full-scale theme park--were under consideration earlier this year for sites as far-flung as the Far East, Australia and the Middle East.

Approval for those and similar Disney proposals abroad has been put on hold by the Asian economic crisis, Disney insiders said.

But in the long run, the troubles seem not to have taken Asia, with its huge and less Disney-saturated populations, off the new-venture list.

"Notwithstanding all of the financial problems recently, we're always looking forward," said Green, whose corporate division includes all the theme parks. "You've got to remember what our time horizon is (for developing resorts). In eight to 10 years, the likelihood is that the economic outlook will be good again."

In already announced expansions, Disney is spending $1.4 billion on a new theme park, hotel and retail-entertainment center to open in 2001 beside Disneyland in Anaheim. It launched a cruise ship line and the Animal Kingdom theme park in Florida this year, and its longtime Japanese partner recently broke ground on an ocean-themed park beside Tokyo Disneyland.

Green's comments came in an interview at the formal opening of Innoventions, a display of new products at Tomorrowland, the Disneyland section that recently got a $100-million-plus overhaul.

Tomorrowland reopened in June, though many of its ventures into new technology, including the Rocket Rods thrill ride and several of Innoventions' highly interactive displays, have needed months of fine-tuning.

For example, the huge German business software supplier SAP AG decided to raise its profile by sponsoring an Innoventions game whose players join six "companies" that must work together to resupply a space station.

The game, designed to illustrate how SAG networking gear keeps complex interrelated businesses running, shoots disks across a surface like a gargantuan air hockey table. However, the pesky disks sometimes flew end over end into the air, or failed to slide across to their intended destinations.

When those and other glitches weren't interfering with the game, it tended to last too long. "It was taking 18 minutes to play. People would complain they missed the Mulan Parade," a Disney employee said Monday as last-minute repairs were made.

On Tuesday, with the average game time cut drastically but the game still down off-and-on for repair, SAP America President Jeremy P. Coote said his corner of Innoventions remains "a work in progress" five months after the new Tomorrowland opened.

"If it's not challenging, we wouldn't be doing it," Coote said with a shrug. "It will be interesting to see whether people can have fun and at the same time grasp international business concepts in three minutes."

Disney executives said they have yet to decide whether Disneyland, which opened in 1955, will get another major attraction before the new Anaheim park, Disney's California Adventure, opens in a year and a half.

Green said he is confident the company's theme parks, whose operating profits rose 13% in fiscal 1998, to nearly $1.3 billion, will remain strong.

"Barring a major downturn in the economy, we're expecting a very bullish 1999 as well," he said.

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