Disney sets $250 mil birthday bash

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Walt Disney World is launching its biggest marketing effort ever with a $250 million-plus ad and promotion push for events surrounding the celebration of the birth of company founder Walt Disney a century ago.

The spending represents a huge leap for the four Florida Disney parks, which were supported by $85.2 million in measured media last year, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. To fund the effort, which aims to build sagging attendance at its parks during the economic downturn, Disney has for the first time asked all its major corporate partners-McDonald's Corp., Coca-Cola Co., American Express Co., Kellogg Co. and Hallmark Cards-to contribute paid media. With the exception of Amex, all are clients of Bcom3 Group's Leo Burnett Co., Chicago, which created the effort supporting Disney-MGM Studios, Disney's Animal Kingdom, Epcot Center and the Magic Kingdom.

As with most of Disney's big marketing efforts, all its companies are synergistically involved, including the ABC Television Network, which will air a documentary on Walt Disney, and a strong Internet component teasing the effort on DisneyWorld.com. There will, however, be paid media beyond ABC.

The marketing plan aims to spread out the push, with each of the partners following one another with promotional programs through the 15 months of the campaign. Hallmark is scheduled to launch its effort in August of this year; McDonald's is slotted for March 2002 to help kick in business for the summer. Executives said McDonald's is expected to spend in the $20 million range, with other corporate partners spending anywhere from $5 million to $15 million.

"In the past we loaded up all marketing at the front with our partners," said Linda Warren, exec VP-marketing and brand marketing for Walt Disney World. "Now we are working with our partners throughout the year. We pretty much can spike attendance for the whole year."

That's crucial for Disney, which has seen its visitor count shrink this year. The company does not break out figures, but according to analysts, attendance at all its parks, including the Disney World attractions, dropped 7% this year. That's compared with a 2% gain at MGM Studios in 2000, to 8.9 million visitors and a 5% jump to 10.6 million visitors at Epcot during the same time, according to Amusement Business. The publication said attendance at the Magic Kingdom was flat in 2000, while Animal Kingdom visitors fell 3% to 8.3 million.

Moreover, the economic gloom has hit hard in the industry at a time when parks are raising prices. Amusement Business estimates it costs $163 for a family of four to spend a day U.S. theme park, up 7% from 2000.

Ms. Warren confirmed attendance has been "soft" at Disney World, but declined to offer specific figures. She said news that the major airlines would be offering steep discounts this summer is expected to help build park traffic.

Disney World's first TV commercials break July 16 with newly created music titled "We Share a Dream Come True," composed by Cheryl Berman, chairman and chief creative officer of Burnett.

In addition to an umbrella commercial, four additional spots were created-one each to target families, empty-nesters, tweens and grandparents. In the grandparent spot, a man is showing his grandson a statue of Walt Disney at Walt Disney World. The grandfather explains that Mr. Disney was the one that created Mickey Mouse and lots of other wonderful things. The kid responds: "Just like you."

The campaign is tricky because Disney is marketing Walt Disney, the man, someone not too familiar to children. The in-park "100 Years of Magic" promotion kicks off in October, leading up to the anniversary of Walt Disney's birth on Dec. 5, 1901.

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