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Disney to Plug Electrical Parade In at New Venue

Theme parks: Popular feature is being revived to boost attendance at California Adventure.

April 27, 2001|E. SCOTT RECKARD and MATTHEW EBNET | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Looking to light up lower-than-expected attendance at its new California Adventure park, Walt Disney Co. said Thursday that it is bringing back the crowd-pleasing Main Street Electrical Parade it ceased at Disneyland five years ago.

The procession of lighted floats, to be staged nightly starting July 4, should be a proven draw at a park criticized for charging as much as Disneyland but having fewer than half the attractions and little to do at night compared to its older sibling.

The announcement of the parade's return comes after poor attendance during the recent two-week spring break and only two days after Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner told analysts he was not worried about attendance at the new theme park, which opened in February next to Disneyland in Anaheim.

"People delay their vacations because of fear of economic slowdown. They inevitably only delay for a year. When these end, there's a tremendous rebound in the parks," he said during a conference call Tuesday.

Disneyland Staple Recalled Fondly

Many regular Disney attendees recall the Electrical Parade, which began in 1972 and has been featured at other Disney parks since ceasing at Disneyland, as an extraordinary Anaheim tradition that never should have ended. It features more than 500,000 lightbulbs and a cast of more than 100 performers.

At the time of the closing in 1996, Disneyland advertised that it was the last chance to see the parade, saying it was "glowing away forever" and even auctioning off the lightbulbs from the floats for charity.

But observers and customers alike question whether bringing the popular parade to California Adventure will be enough to help the park meet its expectations.

"You can't blame [low attendance] on bad weather or the off-season anymore," said David Koenig, author of "Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland." The park "can't afford a mediocre summer. Disney had to do something desperate."

Patron Carolyn Hurley of Costa Mesa also has doubts.

"Even an absolutely beautiful parade isn't going to make us go" back, said Hurley, 62, outside the park Thursday.

Her husband, Bob, 65, suggested that the answer for Disney would be to cut prices from $43 to, say, $20 for anyone buying a full-price admission to Disneyland.

California Adventure's attractions and restaurants, including expensive ones operated by the Wolfgang Puck Food Co. and Robert Mondavi Corp., have frequently been deserted after dark. And even during the days, attendance has been far lower than projected, though it showed modest improvements during spring break, according to internal Disney records obtained by The Times.

Acknowledging weak attendance, Disney recently decided to close the new park at 10 p.m. Saturdays through mid-June, instead of midnight, as originally planned. Disneyland remains open until midnight every Saturday, as it has for decades.

Disneyland spokesman John McClintock said no one is panicking about lower attendance at the new park. The company is offering a variety of discount passes that are incorporated into Anaheim vacation packages. But as for cutting prices on regular tickets, he said: "I don't think so. Nothing like that is planned."

But new attractions are likely. California Adventure designer Barry Braverman has noted that the new park has ample room for more attractions inside its current perimeter and in a parking lot outside.

Braverman said the priority is something for small children, who find little to do in the new park compared with Disneyland. But there also is room for major attractions.

For now, the Electrical Parade appears to be the remedy for Disney's marketers.

"It's the best quick fix Disney has, something that will help solve California Adventure's two main problems: getting people in the gates and keeping them there after dark," Koenig said.

Disney has said that California Adventure would reach 7 million a year in attendance--an average of 19,000 per day. Despite the new competition, Disneyland's attendance was supposed to fall only slightly, from about 13.8 million a year to 13.3 million.

The net effect would be to increase total attendance in Anaheim by nearly 50% while extending the length of stay--and the amount spent--at the complex.

So far, though, California Adventure attendance has been far below projections, and the growth in overall visits has been below the 50% goal. After struggling to reach 19,000 even on good days, California Adventure went above the 20,000 mark last Thursday and Friday, during spring break. But the numbers were not up much from Disneyland alone the year before.

On April 19 the new park had 22,000 visitors, according to internal tallies obtained by The Times. Across the esplanade at Disneyland, 50,000 showed up, making the total for both parks 72,000.

Parks' Attendance Figures Disappointing

But a year earlier, amid a blitz of nostalgic promotions centering on Disneyland's 45th anniversary, Disneyland alone attracted 66,000 visitors. Total increase this year: 6,000, a 9% increase.

On April 20 the new park again drew 22,000, while Disneyland attracted 52,000 visitors. A year earlier, though, Disneyland alone had drawn 68,000 paying customers. Total increase this year: again, 6,000.

April 21 comparisons are harder to make because the day started cloudy after overnight rain showers and didn't clear up until noon. California Adventure pulled in just 15,000 visitors, while Disneyland drew 39,000. A year earlier, Disneyland had attracted 56,000 guests.

Outside Disneyland on Thursday, Ted Murphy, 45, of Montebello said it all boils down to cost--and the new park just isn't worth it.

"The parade is great," Murphy said. "I have two daughters, 6 and 11, but we haven't gone [to California Adventure] yet, and we're not going to go, no matter how great the parade is."

Associated Press was used in compiling this story.

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