Disney drawn to Asia

LOOK out Asia - Disney has designs on you. The Far East has been earmarked as the fifth place in the world which will have a Disney theme park and resort . . . and Hong Kong is on the list.

Already established in America, Europe and Tokyo, an as yet undecided country in Southeast Asia is seen as the logical next step for the rapidly expanding Disney World empire.

The last decade has been a golden one for the Walt Disney company.

Ten years ago a team of three young executives - Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg, of which only Eisner remains - turned Disney from a US$2 billion (about HK$15.4 billion) lacklustre Hollywood studio into a US$22 billion conglomerate.

They not only created hit films such as Home Alone, Mrs Doubtfire and animation blockbusters Aladdin and The Lion King, they also developed the theme park and resort business, and the returns have been handsome.

The theme resort concept goes back to the great founder himself, Walt Disney, who had a vision of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, which has been used as the title for one of the theme parks, EPCOT.

The 80s and early 90s saw the resorts grow by more than four times. Today there are over 17,000 rooms in Florida alone with 18 hotels, a camp-ground, vacation villas and a vacation club. In 1980, there were around 4,500 rooms.

The president of Walt Disney Attractions, Judson Green, explained that a stay at a Disney Resort is an extension of the 'theme park experience'.

Like its fun parks, everything is ordered, planned and there for a purpose - there is not a blade of grass on Disney property that shouldn't be in place. So, holidays are ordered and comfortably artificial at Disney World. And visitors from America and increasingly abroad are responding to Mickey's call.

But, not everyone is won over. In Haymarket, Virginia, the protests of residents, environmentalists and historians led to Disney cancelling plans to build an American history theme park on a Civil War battlefield. They refused to allow 'Disney's synthetic and vulgar treatment of history', as one scholar put it.

Disney bowed out without putting up too much of a fight, saying simply it would take its US$625 million to another location in the same state.

It may have been a little embarrassing, but Disney can swallow a little pride when it comes to the vast amounts of money it sees pouring in from its theme resorts and parks.

'Resorts are a pretty significant business for us,' Mr Green said. 'The three major theme parks are our principal business, but resorts are coming up fast as the second, given the number of rooms we have on property. Resorts are now approximately 25 per cent of the total Disney World business, with films slightly more profitable than the theme parks and resorts.' But for all the success, business started slowing down in the early-90s, so Disney has decided to go budget, opening the All-Star Sports Resort this year and planning to open the All-Star Music Resort in early-95.

The two resorts will offer the lowest Disney room rates so far, US$69 and US$79 per night, which is far below the US$150 a night and up at the theme resorts styled as old-time New Orleans, a yacht club, a wilderness lodge and others.

The All-Star Sports Resort is about as cliched American as you could imagine - footballs, gridiron helmets, surfboards and Coke cups the size of three-storey buildings are the landscaping, while the rooms are all reds and blues with cheerleaders on the walls. Everything is plastic, right down to knives and forks.

Families are the people Disney are targeting; families who have to keep a watchful eye on their spending in these cash-strapped times.

'There are a lot of people concerned about the affordability of long-distance travel and I think the ability to come up with some uniquely themed experiences at such a rate should be a benefit for tourism in central Florida,' Mr Green said.

But it has not just been a downturn in the economy that has kept the long-distance traveller away - a series of highway murders of tourists has deterred many Europeans.

Mr Green admitted that the murder-robberies have had an impact on Disney, 'particularly in Europe where reporting of these very isolated incidents was quite significant and I think it depressed tourism'.

It has been estimated that Orlando will lose US$355 million in tourism revenue this year because of the spate of armed hold-ups and shootings which have targeted tourists.

'Or course, the health of the international economy is always going to impact us - now more than ever because up to 25 per cent of our business is international, it's not just domestic, and that's an increase from just five years ago,' Mr Green said.

Disney World has seen a growing number of tourists from Southeast Asia travelling to America for the Disney experience and it is a market they see growing for years to come.

Now, the bosses believe it's time to take Disney to Asia.

'We are considering a number of different locations, but we haven't made any decisions as to where it's going to go,' Mr Green said. 'We have just recognised that of all the regions in the world, it continues to grow at a very healthy rate and I think there is quite a demand for the Disney product there.

'We know that from the demand for Disney films and we know that from the demand for Disney products and it follows, as it has followed in Europe and Japan and elsewhere, that when demand builds up, there will be demand as well for Disney theme parks and resorts and at some point it will happen.' When and where, Mr Green said, was still on the drawing board.

And that's not all - there's talk of another theme park outside Paris, even though Euro Disney has been less than successful, and plans for another park in Tokyo, a fourth theme park at Disney World and a second park in California.

The cruise business has been eating into Disney's profit potential, executives have noted, so the next few years will see Disney launching its own cruise business, based in Florida.

So get ready, it looks like Disney wants to take over the world.