Disney's latest Paris gamble

30th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Amid a blaze of publicity, Disney has opened its latest Paris theme park, Walt Disney Studios. It promises thrills and spills straight out of the action-packed blockbuster films which only Hollywood seems able to produce.

Walt Disney Studios, built to one side of the nine-year-old Disneyland Paris park at a cost of EUR 610 million, is a new zone of rides and attractions that takes its inspiration from movies past and present, and not only those from the Disney catalogue.

The first paying customers have begun clicking through the turnstiles of the new Disney theme park, lured by the promise of having the thrills, spills and noise of blockbuster films come to life.

After a gala opening on 15 March, attended by stars such as Roger Moore and Phil Collins, Disney executives were waiting anxiously for reactions to their massive investment. That was when they were also given a taste of French labour relations, with around 30 demonstrators, including members of the left-leaning CGT union, staging a protest over working conditions outside the gates.

Demonstrators, who were watched by a detachment of riot police, handed out leaflets protesting about conditions for workers in Disney attractions, particularly the use of short-term contracts.

They also called for higher wages and spoke out against the use of foreign workers, anti-union measures, understaffing and what they said were other measures against France's labour laws.

Called Walt Disney Studios the new park is next door to Disneyland Paris which, after a rocky start, has in nine years become the most visited tourist attraction in Europe with 12.2 million people a year visiting its fantasy castles rather than the real castles found a short drive away.

Disney is hoping the new attraction will boost visitor figures to 17 million a year.

The aim is to boost occupancy in the Disney-owned hotels sitting at the entrance and pump up revenues per vistor, whose average stay is expected to be lengthened from 2.5 days to 3.5 days.

Although everything in Walt Disney Studios is, in the words of a Disney employee, "a cliche" of Americana, efforts have been made to accomodate the British, French, Dutch, Germans and Italians who make up the bulk of the visitors.

Thus the shows and park staff offer a polyglot experience and a few nods are made to French inventions that made cinema possible, even if the main attractions are pure US entertainment, like a reconstruction of the space station in the movie Armageddon.

Indeed, it promises thrills and spills straight out of the action-packed blockbuster films which only Hollywood seems able to produce.

Far from the cuddly world of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck found in Disneyland Paris, the new park features exploding petrol tankers, earthquakes, motorcycle stuntmen roaring through flames, disintegrating spaceships and a rock and roll roller-coaster promising 0-100 kmh (0-60 mph) acceleration in 2.8 seconds to a sound track blasting out at 100 decibels.

Oh, yes — and pregnant women and people with back problems are advised not to take the ride.

The combination of the US recession and the slowdown of European economies, diminished air travel in the wake of the 11 September attacks, and the fact that Disneyland Paris showed only a meagre 1.7 percent increase in entries last year after two years of stagnation all augur against a buoyant first year for the park.

The Euro Disney company that runs both parks said in its 2001 annual financial report released last November that the international volatility "may continue to reduce personal and business travel as well as discretionary consumer spending" and warned it did not know "the extent this situation will impact its operating results for fiscal year 2002."

Shares in Euro Disney, which were floated in 1989 at EUR 10.98 and rose to EUR 25.15 at their height, are now languishing around one euro.

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