| LOS ANGELES, June 8
LOS ANGELES, June 8 The Disney California
Adventure theme park in Anaheim, a dud since it opened in 2001,
will unveil the fruits of a five-year, $1 billion renovation
next week -- and there's a lot more riding on the effort than
Disney is counting on the overhauled park to entice visitors
at adjacent Disneyland to stay another day or two, preferably in
a Disney hotel. It is also a riposte to rival Universal Studios,
which just launched a heavily promoted thrill ride based on the
Perhaps most importantly, the revamped Disney California
Adventure underscores the emergence of Pixar's chief creative
officer, John Lasseter, as a key force within Disney -- as a
colorful and imaginative counterpoint to the company's
technocratic, financially oriented chief executive, Bob Iger.
Indeed, with the opening next week of a themed area called
Cars Land, the park is fast becoming Pixar-land. Nine of 20
rides are now based on films from the computer animation
company, which Disney bought from Steve Jobs in 2006.
The prominence of Lasseter and Pixar, as well as the
emergence of such major franchises as Marvel Entertainment's
blockbuster film "The Avengers," marks a major shift for the
venerable entertainment conglomerate.
In its most successful times, "Disney magic" came largely
from within. The company was run by creative executives such as
Walt Disney himself and Michael Eisner, a former TV and film
Now it is counting on companies it acquired for the iconic
characters and story lines that drive everything from theme park
attendance to merchandise sales.
"Before Disney bought Pixar it was struggling to create its
own branded content," said Davenport and Co analyst Michael
Morris. "Pixar and Marvel had a lot of creative momentum that
the company needed to tap."
Today, Disney allows creative executives at both Marvel and
Pixar to operate largely autonomously at offices miles from
Disney's Burbank studios.
As part of the Pixar acquisition, Lasseter, who once worked
as a Disneyland guide, was also named "principal creative
adviser" to Walt Disney Imagineering, the company's super secret
design unit for its theme parks.
Lasseter took the stage in New Orleans for Disney's first
annual meeting following the deal, dressed in his trademark loud
Hawaiian shirt, for a 20-minute speech that rambled from his
childhood when he rushed home to watch Bugs Bunny cartoons, to
the movie "Cars," which he was then directing.
It was Iger who suggested the idea of using "Cars" rides in
the California Adventure park, according to people involved at
the time. It was Lasseter who flew in for twice monthly meetings
from Pixar's Emeryville, California, headquarters to brainstorm
with the Imagineers to make the rides come to life.
Lasseter's creative chops beyond animation will be put to
their first big test at Disney California Adventure. The park
has suffered from poor attendance since its 2001 opening, with
patrons complaining of too few attractions at too high a
price. Even with two-for-one specials and other promotions, just
6 million people spun through its turnstiles in 2011, compared
with 16 million at the company's flagship Disneyland next door,
according to the Themed Entertainment Association trade group.
"It was a bit of a brand eyesore," Iger told an investor
conference in May. "We had a park that was not up to the
standards that Disney parks need to achieve. Its return on
invested capital for the initial investment was not that
A decade ago, theme parks were the company's most profitable
unit, with operating margins of 18 percent. This year, profit
margins slid below 13 percent as the company spent to overhaul
the California park and expand elsewhere, according to Disney's
latest SEC filing. That puts it behind the TV, movie and
consumer products units.
The parks' importance extends beyond their direct
money-making capacity. Rides, shows and strolling characters
provide marketing muscle for Disney movies, TV shows and
merchandise, and build the aura that helps make Disney a part of
so many families' lives.
In remaking California Adventure, Disney replaced rides
based on the California lifestyle with attractions such as a
moving shooting arcade ride based on Pixar's "Toy Story" and a
ride based on its "Monsters, Inc." film.
Disney used part of the park's parking lot to create the
12-acre Cars Land, based on Pixar's 2006 hit movie. Rides
include Radiator Spring Racers, a roller coaster-style ride in
which convertibles speed past mountain and desert landscapes
reminiscent of the film's setting.
Luigi's Flying Tires puts riders in tires that float on air
jets. Mater's Junkyard Jamboree offers a tractor ride similar to
Disney's twirling teacups. The area includes themed restaurants
and shops selling "Cars" toys and related merchandise.
Disney's overhaul "will make the park more Disneyland
worthy," said blogger Jim Hill, who writes a popular Disney fan
blog. "But for $1 billon it won't move the needle that much."
Hill says it takes 10 to 15 years to create characters that
resonate with the parents who visited as children themselves and
now want to share with their own kids. "The Disney zeitgeist
doesn't happen overnight," he said.
To promote the revamped park, Disney is spending lavishly on
TV commercials and billboards. A grand-opening party will
feature a celebrity-studded red-carpet. Disney-owned ABC is
running the original "Cars" movie on June 16.
It's an opening worthy of a big summer movie. Disney has a
billion reasons to hope it's a hit.