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Disney Reaches for New Audience

Expansion Redraws the Boundaries for the Happiest Place on Earth

September 20, 2000|E. SCOTT RECKARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back when Davy Crockett ruled the airwaves, families by the station-wagonload traveled to Southern California for a day at Disneyland.

Today's American family, richer and busier than ever, demands more: convenience, multiple diversions and a bit of adventure, escapism and coddling--all packed into a few intense days.

Walt Disney Co. is building its $1.4-billion expansion in Anaheim with this new American family in its marketing cross hairs. The company aims to turn the Disneyland area into a throbbing all-day, all-night playground--with a second theme park, called California Adventure, and the kinds of live entertainment and night life that have made Disney World in Florida a mecca for tourists.

The Burbank-based company plans to employ a strategy the industry calls "sequestration," tourism's Holy Grail, in which visitors are isolated at the resort, preferably for several days.

Day visitors and tourists staying with friends or relatives spent $50 a day each at theme parks in 1998, compared with $250 for those who stayed in hotels or motels, according to Economics Research Associates, a Los Angeles consulting firm.

"It's a simple idea," said a top advisor on the California Adventure project. "You lock them up, grab their ankles, turn them upside-down, shake them and don't let go until all the money is gone."

The strategy calls for some un-Disneylandlike changes.

Walt Disney personally banned alcoholic drinks at Disneyland, seeing the park as the ultimate family playground, safe and reassuring. But when the California Adventure park opens in February, adults will be able to wander the grounds of the park with cocktails in hand, as they have for years at much of Disney World.

Drinks and music will be flowing outside the park, too. In Downtown Disney, an entertainment mall, the company will cater to adults with a sports bar themed to Disney's ESPN, a House of Blues, a New Orleans-style jazz place and a Latin supper club. Disney's new Grand Californian Hotel in Anaheim, at $220 a night, features a slate-floored wine-tasting room with 900 bottles displayed.

"We want this [new] park to be hipper and edgier," said Timur Galen, general manager at Disney's Imagineering design unit.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, two-parent families accounted for about 40% of the nation's population. That number has since dwindled to 25%. So Disney is hoping to expand its audience in Anaheim by catering to additional groups of the population--a segmentation strategy, as analysts call it.

"Disney does it phenomenally well," said Salomon Smith Barney analyst Jill Krutick.

And the children are different. Nowadays they demand multiple diversions.

Jennifer Ledford of Seattle remembers her childhood vacations to Southern California: She tossed a book or two into the family sedan for the 1,200-mile journey to visit grandparents in Beverly Hills, a vacation highlighted by a day at Disneyland.

"Now when I pack for my [four] kids, I'm bringing brand new toys, 75 books, Game Boy, Walkman," said Ledford, 25.

When the Ledfords went on vacation this month, it wasn't by car. They spent more than $5,000 to fly to Disney World.

"We don't take days off very often, so when we do, we go all out," said Ledford, who runs a day-care center.

Indeed, the prosperous economy has left many with more money than time. Nearly four of 10 people now say they would trade an increase in pay for more vacation time--up from 29% just last year, according to an annual survey by Yesawich, Pepperdine.

"There's a general feeling that we're all overworked, but things are good, and frankly we owe it [vacations] to ourselves," said the consulting firm's Peter Yesawich. "A lot of people are saying price is no object."

More than ever, leisure travelers want to learn some activity or skill on vacation. But even more vacationers are looking for live entertainment and night life, the survey found. Also very much in vogue: opportunities to indulge in different and unusual cuisines.

All of which the new Disneyland resort offers.

While the kids get turned upside down beneath a pair of mouse ears on the California Screamin' roller coaster, parents can indulge themselves at an upscale seafood restaurant run by star chef Wolfgang Puck. Another Los Angeles culinary celebrity, Joaquim Splichal, will operate a tapas restaurant and wine bar in the entertainment mall.

In an industry that promotes novelty, the expansion freshens Disneyland's image while leaving the popular old park unchanged. And it's likely to make Anaheim more attractive to high-income vacationers as well as the budget travelers who have dominated the scene.

Theme parks, after all, are a huge business; attendance at larger U.S. parks--the 112 that attract 500,000 or more visits annually--is expected to top 226 million this year and generate revenue of $6.8 billion, according to Economics Research Associates. That's up from 159 million attendance and $4.3 billion in revenue for 1990.

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