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At 50, Disneyland Boots Up Its Quest for the Fountain of Youth

The theme park seeks entertainment that is relevant to children of the Internet generation.

May 01, 2005|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

Walt Disney Co. these days has more than one mouse on its mind.

As it ramps up a worldwide celebration this week marking the 50th anniversary of Disneyland, the Burbank company knows it can no longer rely solely on Mickey and his friends to lure sophisticated young consumers into the Magic Kingdom.

Increasingly aware that children today are "born with a mouse in their hands," as one expert puts it, Disney scientists and designers are working overtime to appeal to the Internet generation. The goal: to make the park's next half century as profitable as its last.

"It's all about trying to keep our entertainment relevant to the way kids are growing up today," said Marty Sklar, principal creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, the company's in-house think tank. "We don't want to get left behind."

Over the next several months, Disneyland is set to unveil a new crop of interactive attractions designed specifically to hook tech-savvy youngsters raised on computer games, digital effects and MP3 players.

Some ideas, including a computer-animated clown fish (the star of the film "Finding Nemo") that swims around a submarine ride filled with park visitors, will come to life inside Disneyland. Others, including a Magic Kingdom virtual-reality game, will be accessible via the Web.

Then there's Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, a "Toy Story"-inspired space ride that will bridge the online realm with the physical world in what Disney designers are describing as an industry first. Beginning in June, Disney fans sitting at their home computers will be able to team up with park visitors to fight the evil Emperor Zurg, shooting at targets and accumulating points.

"We're in the business right now of really inventing a new genre of entertainment," said Bruce Vaughn, the Imagineering vice president of research and development.

It's about time, industry analysts say.

Four years ago, when Disney opened California Adventure, which sits like a barnacle affixed to Disneyland, critics panned its off-the-shelf rides and lack of innovation. Although the park has added upgrades, including last year's $60-million thrill ride the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, its attendance continues to fall short of projections.

Moreover, Disney's biggest competition these days isn't from such traditional rivals as Universal Studios but from video gaming companies and others that vie for youngsters with short attention spans and money to spend.

According to a recent survey by Nielsen Media Research, 13- to 17-year-old gamers now spend an average of $39 a month on video and computer games, nearly as much as the price of a theme park admission. The $24-billion gaming industry has become the fastest-growing sector in entertainment business.

"Many kids are saying, 'Why should I go to Disneyland? I'd rather play my video game at home,' " said Martin Lindstrom, a branding expert who has consulted for Disney. "We never heard that before."

As Lindstrom sees it, there is a growing divide between youngsters weaned on computers and their parents, whom he dubs "the monologue generation."

Raised on more "passive" media, including TV, newspapers, radio and billboards, adults are content with linear entertainment experiences that unfold in a traditional story-like way. They are more patient (read: willing to wait in line) and, Lindstrom says, can cope with only about 1.7 channels of communication at once.

Children, by contrast, can simultaneously master 5.4 channels of communication (including surfing the Internet, text messaging and talking on the phone). They yearn for entertainment that is frenetic, multi-sensory and interactive. Used to video games that have different levels of play, they want to experience something new every time.

The situation echoes the Pixar/Disney movie "Monsters, Inc.," in which a society of monsters faces a shortage of the energy source upon it relies to produce electricity: the screams of little children.

"Kids these days!" the power plant's boss says at one point. "They just don't scare like they used to! Times have changed. Scary isn't enough anymore."

Figuring out what will be "enough" for today's kids poses a special challenge for theme park operators, whose industry has been rocked by its own roller coaster ride.

Although parks recently have seen a rise in traffic, they have yet to recover fully from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that decimated the travel industry. Since then, the industry has been buffeted by everything from recession to high gasoline prices.

Disney's competitors have been struggling. Under a new owner, General Electric Co., Universal Studios last year canceled plans for a theme park in China, sold its stake in a park resort in Spain and has scaled back its design team. And Six Flags Inc., one of the nation's largest park operators, has faced heavy losses.

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